Complaint alleges Salt Lake City councilman broke campaign laws to get elected

Runner-up Billy Palmer accuses victor Alejandro Puy of failing to disclose all expenditures and secretly collaborating with a PAC in the west-side race. Puy insists his campaign was aboveboard.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council member Alejandro Puy, left, and former candidate Billy Palmer. Palmer has accused Puy of campaign violations. Puy says his campaign broke no rules.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Sore loser. Sour grapes.

In hindsight, Billy Palmer figured that’s how people would likely see his campaign finance complaint against fellow City Council candidate Alejandro Puy.

Palmer filed his complaint with the Salt Lake City Recorder’s Office on Nov. 1, the day before the 2021 general election. He and Puy were competing in the west side’s five-way District 2 race that ranked choice voting would decide.

When the dust settled, Puy emerged as the victor, capturing 56% of the vote, with Palmer, at 44%, coming in second. While the loss stung, Palmer said he’s more concerned about the way Puy won.

“To me, there’s pushing the limits of the rules — and then there’s just throwing the rule books out, playing fast and loose,” Palmer said. “And I think (Puy’s) campaign, as the weeks went on, started to play a little more fast and loose.”

Puy campaigned aggressively, using door-to-door canvassers, a glut of mailers and television ads to get his name out there in District 2, which includes Glendale and Poplar Grove. A longtime political consultant, Puy said he personally pounded the pavement to spread his message.

“Just because of my background and what I do, people are going to say, ‘He didn’t do the work, and he must have won because of something sketchy,’” Puy said. “But the fact is, I knocked [on doors throughout] the whole district myself almost twice.”

Palmer’s 10-page complaint alleged that Puy’s campaign violated city code by failing to disclose all expenditures and not stating the source of funding on several mailers.

When asked about the mailers that lacked the required funding disclosure, Puy said he “had no comments about that.”

He nevertheless talked of running 60 campaigns in the city, the state and across the country, and stressed that “my financial reports reveal that I paid for the mailers I paid for.”

Puy’s campaign finance disclosures did not specifically reveal which mailers — or how many — his campaign had funded.

Emails from the offices of the Salt Lake City recorder and attorney immediately after the election indicated that most of the issues identified in Palmer’s complaint did not constitute a legal basis for a candidate’s disqualification but acknowledged that Puy’s campaign violated city code by distributing materials “without the ‘paid for by –’ attribution language.”

Palmer’s campaign was told it could seek “any remedies you deem appropriate in district court.”

Seeking reforms

Palmer said he had no intention of suing. Instead, he hoped the city would launch an investigation into what had occurred and then bolster its laws to limit the influx and influence of wealth on local races.

“The City Council seat is one most connected to the people that you serve,” Palmer said. “I feel like the people here deserve an advocate, someone looking out for them.… If somebody helped you purchase your position, you owe it to them [to identify that benefactor].”

Palmer’s complaint also alleged that Puy’s business, Landslide Political, coordinated efforts with a political action committee named Battleground Utah to circumvent the city’s caps on campaign contributions that candidates can receive.

Puy denied any wrongdoing in a recent phone interview and denounced any allegation that he secretly collaborated with the PAC.

“The premise was that because the numbers didn’t add up, there was some dark money here,” Puy said, explaining that some expenses showed up on subsequent disclosures due to the timing of invoices. He maintains that everything his campaign did was aboveboard and by the rules.

“I take this complaint as a sore loser who doesn’t understand the process,” Puy said of Palmer’s accusations.

Luke Garrott, who teaches political science at the University of Utah, served on the Salt Lake City Council from 2008 to 2016. In 2015, he helped install the city’s individual campaign contribution limits that exist today — $780 for council candidates and $3,640 for mayoral contenders.

In the course of that process, Garrott recalled some of his council colleagues warning that lowering the caps would open the door for PACs to “fill the gap.”

“And that turns out to be correct,” Garrott said.

Matthew Burbank, a U. political science professor who specializes in campaign finance issues, said that campaigns and PACS often coordinate in elections, but clear disclosure of expenditures is required.

While Palmer could be accused of “grousing” over his election defeat, Burbank noted that he raised legitimate questions about who’s spending what.

Complaints of undisclosed campaign spending often arise when PACs provide indirect support to congressional or presidential candidates “where it’s pretty easy to evade the laws by simply having an organization that doesn’t have [campaign] limits do the spending,” Burbank said. “And that’s something that really is terribly problematic because there’s no accountability for what that organization does.”

Federal candidates frequently violate campaign finance rules, Burbank said, and face minimal consequences from the Federal Election Commission. If the illegal donation wins you the election, then, by comparison, “it’s a pretty small thing to pay a $500 fine for having violated the law.”

What about PACs?

Utah law does not restrict how much a PAC can spend nor does it bar a candidate from coordinating with a PAC. Under state law, such donations just need to be identified.

While Puy’s campaign finance reports filed with the city show standard donations, loans and in-kind contributions, nothing is attributed to Battleground PAC.

Battleground Utah PAC’s 2021 reports — filed with the state — indicate expenditures made to Landslide Political totaling $25,151. But they don’t specify whose campaigns those funds assisted.

Battleground had a handful of donors, chief among them billboard company Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which gave $6,000, and Dakota Pacific Real Estate, which contributed $5,000 — both in October.

Dakota Pacific’s website touts the company as having raised and invested nearly $400 million in several commercial and multifamily housing projects across the Salt Lake Valley and in other states.

Reagan Outdoor, based in Salt Lake City, has frequently clashed with Salt Lake City officials over ordinances affecting the placement of its signs.

During the 2015 mayoral campaign, Reagan Outdoor pioneered the use of a super PAC in a local Utah race to spend thousands opposing incumbent Ralph Becker without restriction by contribution limits. The company put up billboards for every candidate challenging Becker, who had spent years advocating tougher regulation of billboards.

Garrott called Reagan Outdoor and told it not to spend money on his behalf.

“I wanted to be able to say that I called them and told them to stop. I could defend that as not being coordination,” Garrott said. Nevertheless, the company, through it’s super PAC, put up billboards supporting him.

Robert Kubichek, primary officer for Battleground PAC, said he knew nothing about Palmer’s complaint and declined to comment on specifics.

The complaint against Puy contained photocopies of seven mailers, two of which contained the required “Paid for by Battleground Utah PAC.” The other five did not say who funded them.

An Oct. 28 screenshot of an ad that ran on CNN included the statement “Paid for by the Committee to Elect Alejandro Puy.”

From July through November, city-filed reports indicated that Puy’s campaign paid $29,280 to Landslide Political. Of that, $9,000 paid for “ads,” while $12,500 went for “wages and mailers.” Puy’s LinkedIn account identifies him as chief operating officer for Landslide Political since 2017.

To date, Puy’s campaign has reported 126 contributions totaling $43,112 and expenditures of $38,954, while Palmer’s campaign has listed 334 contributions totaling $33,648 — all of which had been spent.