New ‘dark money’ group spent big on Phil Lyman’s campaign for Utah governor

Ahead of this weekend’s nominating conventions, several candidates reported huge campaign hauls in Utah’s 2024 gubernatorial election.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, running for Utah governor, talks to delegates before the Davis County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Layton, on Saturday, February. 24, 2024. A new 'dark money' group has spent $300,000 on Lyman's campaign.

Several candidates running for Utah Governor in 2024 have amassed sizeable war chests ahead of this weekend’s Republican and Democratic State Nominating Conventions.

Incumbent Republican Spencer Cox’s campaign is sitting on nearly $1 million despite raising less than Democrat Brian King during the first months of the year. Republican challenger Phil Lyman also massively outraised Cox, but the source of those funds is raising some eyebrows among campaign finance watchdogs.

Lyman’s campaign raised more than $800,000 since January, more than five times the donations reported by Cox. Lyman’s gubernatorial bid is propped up financially by a massive loan from a former Texas Congressional candidate and BYU football player and hundreds of thousands of dollars from a newly-created company that may help hide donors to his campaign.

Lyman reported $300,000 in donations from Lehi-based Government Leadership Solutions, which was registered with the state of Utah on Jan. 10, the same day Utah’s candidate filing period closed. Three days later, it donated $100,000 to Lyman’s campaign and made another $200,000 donation in March. It is unclear what business Government Leadership Solutions conducts.

Government Leadership Solutions shares a Lehi address with Lyman Family Farm, which members of Lyman’s family own. According to business records filed with the State of Utah, Chris Webb is the sole listed officer for Government Leadership Solutions and the vice president of Lyman Family Farm. The same address is also home to Greenwave Finance. Joseph Hunt is the president of both Greenwave Finance and Lyman Family Farm. Webb’s LinkedIn profile lists him as the chief operating officer of Greenwave Financial. He previously was the vice president of Air Medical Resource Group, the company founded by Hunt’s father in the early 1980s.

Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach Webb and Hunt were unsuccessful. The phone number on Greenwave’s website led to a call center for customers and an operator could not provide a contact for Greenwave’s corporate leadership. No emails or phone numbers were included in corporate filings.

Lyman Family Farm has spent millions of dollars buying up Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) land at auction. Between 2014 and 2016, the company spent $6.4 million acquiring 5,214 acres, according to an analysis from the Center for Western Priorities.

SITLA manages millions of acres of land in Utah. These lands generate revenue for public education through energy development or auctioning parcels to the highest bidder. The governor appoints the SITLA Board of Trustees.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington [CREW], a watchdog group, said Government Leadership Solutions appears to be a so-called “dark money” conduit to funnel money from Lyman’s family to his campaign while hiding the source. Utah has very few restrictions on political donations.

“There are a number of reasons why donors would want to hide their identity. Maybe they want to avoid public scrutiny. Or maybe they’re government contractors who face campaign finance restrictions that would be caught if they gave directly,” Robert Maguire, research director for CREW said in an email to The Tribune. “But this particular instance raises a third question: Is the candidate trying to hide the fact that a substantial portion of their campaign is being funded with family money.”

Lyman initially claimed there was no connection between Government Leadership Solutions and his family, and said in a text message that, “The company is not connected to my family at all.”

After detailing the web of links discovered through corporate filings, Lyman said Hunt’s wife is a distant relative and that Webb is a friend who “likes my campaign.”

Lyman then seemed to say Government Leadership Solutions was established to hide the source of donations to his campaign because donors feared reprisals from allies of Cox.

“Most people don’t trust the government, so [they] try to have a little anonymity,” Lyman texted. “I would have a lot more [donations] coming in if it weren’t for people’s fear of being targeted by Cox and co.”

Lyman also reported a $420,000 loan from Johnny Slavens on the same day that Government Leadership Solutions was founded. Slavens grew up in Blanding and played football at BYU in the late 1990s. Slavens ran for Congress in Texas in 2016, losing the GOP primary to another Republican, Sam Johnson. In 2022, Slavens was hired as the boy’s basketball coach for San Juan High School.

Flirting with disaster, Lyman’s campaign missed the initial deadline for filing the required pre-convention disclosure. Utah law gives candidates a 24-hour grace period for submitting reports. Lyman’s was filed with the lieutenant governor’s office mere minutes before the grace period ran out on Tuesday night. Had he missed both deadlines, Lyman would have been disqualified from the race.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaking at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 18, 2024. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt is at right.

Cox didn’t raise much money during the first part of 2024 — but he didn’t need to.

The Republican incumbent is sitting on a mountain of campaign cash heading into Saturday’s Republican State Nominating Convention. Cox has raised just over $155,000 in 2024, with the largest contribution coming from a $25,000 donation from Nomi Health. The company donated $50,000 to Cox’s campaign in 2022.

Nomi was part of a group of politically well-connected firms, including DOMO and Qualtrics, that came together to create the TestUtah initiative to oversee COVID testing in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. The group used the program in Utah to secure millions of dollars in government contracts in Utah and other states. TestUtah was mired in scandal.

Nearly four out of every five dollars Cox has raised for his reelection campaign since January has come from corporations, industry groups or political action committees.

Cox’s largest individual donation was $10,416 from prominent Virginia-based political operative Phil Cox.

Cox has raised over $4.2 million since taking office in 2021. The campaign reported having just under $1 million in the bank.

Cox has spent heavily ramping up for his 2024 campaign. Last year, his team spent over $250,000 on advertising, while spending another $150,000 on ads ahead of this weekend’s convention. His campaign has also paid Election Hive, a political consulting firm headed, in part, by his cousin Jon Cox, more than $200,000 for campaign management and fundraising services.

Cox is the only Republican in the gubernatorial race to take the signature-gathering route to qualify for the primary election. Cox paid private company Gather $147,000 to collect the 28,000 signatures needed to guarantee a spot in the primary. His campaign also paid the company another $147,000 for signature gathering in late 2023.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian King holds a news conference for his gubernatorial campaign at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen raised a fraction of what Cox and Lyman pulled in, reporting just $52,000 in campaign donations, including $4,000 of his own funds.

Democrat Brian King reported more than $170,000 in contributions since January and has just under $90,000 in the bank. He is unopposed for the Democratic nomination and will be on November’s ballot.

Republican Sylvia Miera-Fisk’s campaign is running in the red, with just $1,100 in donations and just over $10,000 in expenditures. Most of those campaign costs are listed as reimbursements to Fisk and her family members.

Another Republican running for governor, Scott Robbins, has self-financed his campaign so far, contributing just under $1,400.

Clarification, 2:10 p.m. • This story has been updated to clarify the type of land SITLA manages.

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