Selling access? For $25, Utah Parents United promises chance to meet with ‘key players’ in state government

The conservative parent’s right group is selling tickets to meet with some of Utah’s political leaders Monday evening at Utah State Capitol.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

On the evening of Monday, Jan. 10, about 100 (give or take) supporters of the conservative Utah Parents United group will gather at the Utah State Capitol building. Attendees have been promised a tour, a t-shirt and some face time with a few of Utah’s top lawmakers and officials from Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes’ offices.

All for $25.

The right-wing parents’ rights group has helped lead an assault on how race and equity are taught in Utah’s schools, demonstrated against school mask mandates and, more recently, organized against material in school libraries that it thought was obscene. In a training video, Utah Parents United curriculum director Brooke Stephens tells parents to call the police if they find reading materials they feel are not fit for students.

Capitol tours are usually not worth more than a passing glance. Hundreds of school and community groups pass through the halls of the Utah Capitol every year to get a look at where and how the state is governed. But Monday’s event is raising some hackles.

Most groups that come to the Capitol usually don’t get an extended Q&A session with lawmakers, let alone top leaders from the House and Senate. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, will entertain the group on the floor of the House and Senate, respectively, that evening. Mike Mower, a senior adviser to Cox, and Ric Cantrell, chief of staff to Attorney General Sean Reyes, are also scheduled to participate.

According to a video posted on Utah Parents United’s Facebook page, the plan is to break attendees into four groups and rotate them during the evening.

“They’re going to talk to us about our concerns as parents, and we’re going to have the chance to do a question and answer with them,” Nichole Mason, the group’s president, says in the video.

Another video included with the group’s newsletter sells potential participants on the opportunity to interact with “eight key players” on Capitol Hill.

Four Republican lawmakers will act as tour guides for the evening: Sen. John Johnson of Logan, Senate Majority Whip Kirk Cullimore of Sandy, Rep. Candace Pierucci of Riverton and Rep. Karianne Lisonbee of Clearfield.

The tour and participation by elected officials do not break any ethical rules. Lawmakers are free to meet with anyone they choose. But Monday’s event appears to blur the line between legitimate constituent contact and selling access to policymakers by charging to attend.

“$25 gets you a t-shirt & reserves your spot,” Utah Parents United’s website advertises.

Organizers say they are hoping to have 100 people sign up, which would bring in a cool $2,500 for the evening. The event sign-up page says the $25 covers materials and costs for marketing the event. It’s unclear how the group is advertising the event outside of their website social media channels. Utah Parents United has not run any paid advertising on Facebook since Oct. 2020.

The group denies the event is a fundraiser, but would not answer any other questions and did not respond to a request for comment or interview. A Salt Lake Tribune reporter attempted to purchase a ticket for the tour but was told the event was not open to the press. A subsequent attempt to buy a ticket as a private citizen was also rejected.

Schultz says he sees no difference between Monday’s event and when he speaks to other private groups who charge a fee for membership, such as the Salt Lake Chamber.

“When I talk with those organizations, is that selling access?” Schultz asked. He doesn’t see Monday’s event as anything other than a meeting with constituents, adding that many parents in his district belong to the group.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe. D-Cottonwood Heights, says she and other lawmakers have heard several complaints about the tour.

“Public officials should not be portrayed in this way,” Riebe says.

The event is billed as an “exclusive private tour,” although the Capitol is open to the public during the first hour of the tour.

Mower says he agreed to speak with the group because Cox and Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson were unavailable.

“I speak with lots of groups during the session and said I’d be happy to visit with them,” Mower said.

Cantrell says he agreed to a “routine” meeting but was not given the impression it was anything more. A spokesperson for President Adams said he agreed to participate because the event “fit with his schedule.”

Some of the lawmakers participating as tour guides are careful to point out they are not giving special access to the group.

Lisonbee says she was “invited to interact with constituents,” but was unaware that participants were being charged to attend.

Pierucci said the ticket price was to “cover costs” for the group.

“As legislators, we were just invited to give tours to our constituents who come that evening,” Pierucci said in a text message.

A big selling point is an opportunity for participants to be photographed in the governor’s chair. A representative for Cox said that’s something given to most groups who tour the governor’s office.