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Accusation of insider trading sparks tense moment in Utah’s GOP U.S. Senate primary debate

Rep. John Curtis rebutted the accusation by Trent Staggs during the Republican primary debate.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made by Trent Staggs, right, following the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

Utah’s 2024 U.S. Senate Republican primary election debate was mostly a ho-hum affair. That is until the final seconds of the hourlong debate when Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs insinuated that Rep. John Curtis was guilty of insider trading, drawing an angry response from the congressman.

Staggs was the last of the four Republicans vying to replace Mitt Romney to deliver his closing statement Monday night.

“On March 4 of 2020, Abbott Laboratories was awarded a federal grant. On that same day, John Curtis purchased stock in that company. This is the problem in Congress. At a time when somebody should be looking out for their constituents, they end up looking out for their own profit,” Staggs said.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) U.S. Rep. John Curtis, left, reacts to a statement made from Trent Staggs, right, during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

Following Staggs’ statement, the moderator, former television anchor and political correspondent Glen Mills, attempted to end the broadcast, but Curtis intervened.

“That is such a low shot,” Curtis shot back. “You wait till I have no response. You throw something out I can’t respond to. You accuse me of a felony here tonight. You better have very good evidence and I’d like to challenge you to produce that evidence that somehow I’ve committed a felony. If that’s how you’re going to work in the Senate, the people of Utah would be very disappointed.”

[READ: These Republicans want Mitt Romney’s U.S. Senate seat. Here’s where they stand on Utah’s biggest issues.]

During the post-debate question and answer with reporters, Curtis continued his protest about Staggs.

“That was a cheap shot. I think the thing that’s unfortunate about it is Mr. Staggs, his whole campaign is about the dirtiness of Washington and how he’s going to fix that,” Curtis said. “I think he really showed his hand.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP) U.S. Rep. John Curtis speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

For his part, Staggs did not back down.

“I wasn’t accusing him of a felony. What I said is on the same day the company was given a grant, he traded stock. I think that’s a problem. I think it’s problematic that members of Congress are allowed to do this,” Staggs told reporters. “People make millions of dollars every year trading stock.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Trent Staggs speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

The race has become a proxy battle between Republican delegates and the rest of the GOP electorate. Staggs emerged victorious at April’s Utah GOP state nominating convention, receiving just over 1,800 delegate votes to Curtis’ 821 in the final round of voting. However, Curtis had already advanced to the primary through signature gathering and, according to recent polling, has a big lead over Staggs and the rest of the field.

Former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and Staggs said Curtis’ lead is the result of millions of dollars of outside spending from super PACs flooding into the race on his behalf.

“You’ve got close to $7 million of East Coast special interest money, and it looks to me like there’s a banner kind of waving over the state of Utah that says ‘U.S. Senate seats for sale,’ and I don’t think the people of Utah appreciate it,” said Wilson, who has spent millions of dollars on his campaign.

“You’ve got to ask yourself the question whether or not by accepting all of that outside money if it’s going to bring undue influence,” Staggs added.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Brad Wilson speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

According to OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics, a handful of organizations have spent nearly $7 million promoting Curtis’ campaign. The largest spender is the Conservative Values for Utah PAC, which has spent over $4.6 million supporting Curtis. That organization is almost wholly funded by wealthy North Carolina entrepreneur Jay Faison. Political campaigns are prohibited from coordinating with outside organizations.

Curtis brushed off those attacks, saying there is a reason he is attracting that kind of support.

“There’s some jealousy behind some of those comments. Who wouldn’t want that type of money coming in to support them? People know what they’re going to get with John Curtis. I’m the one candidate they don’t have to guess about with a seven-year voting record. Seven years of committee service. Seven years of sponsoring bills. That’s a pretty transparent record,” Curtis said.

Staggs also is receiving support from outside spending. Protect Freedom PAC, which is linked to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, has spent just over $500,000 on ads promoting him.

Since entering the race last year, Staggs has embraced the MAGA base of the Utah GOP by aligning himself with former President Donald Trump and his allies. He’s reeled in a number of endorsements from Trump-aligned Republicans, including the former president himself.

Staggs believes that Trump’s endorsement is an immense help to his campaign.

“President Trump has been fantastic. He’s somebody who cuts against the grain and fights the establishment, and I think we have somewhat of a kindred spirit there,” Staggs said.

All of the candidates on stage did not hesitate to rush to Trump’s defense when asked about his criminal conviction on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to keep the story of their affair from becoming public for fear it would damage his 2016 candidacy.

Without proof, Moxie Pest Control CEO Jason Walton parroted the claim that Democratic President Joe Biden was somehow directing Trump’s prosecution for political advantage.

“Donald Trump has been the most attacked and maligned, persecuted president or presidential candidate in the history of the United States of America,” Walton said. “It’s a sad day when the current sitting president weaponized the government against his political opponents.”

Wilson did not go as far as Walton in his defense of Trump, avoiding a direct answer when asked if he believed Trump was innocent of the charges he was convicted on.

“I believe, like a lot of people believe, that due process in that case was not followed,” Wilson said. “I was reading and listening to an article from Dr. Phil over the weekend. Even he thinks that the president didn’t have a fair trial. So I would just defer to Dr. Phil.”

Wilson’s campaign did not purchase ads, like other candidates had, ahead of the debate and has struggled to gain traction with Republican voters since he entered the race last April. Recent polling shows the former Utah House speaker lagging in third place behind Curtis and Staggs.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Jason Walton speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

The candidates eagerly tore into Biden, blaming him for chaos at the southern U.S. border. Walton, who polling suggests will finish last in the four-person field, hyperbolically accused Biden of actively working with drug cartels.

“We have an open border where drug cartels are literally business partners with Joe Biden,” Walton said. “What Joe Biden’s getting is over three million illegal immigrants who are coming into America each year who he and the Democrats presume will vote Democrat. What the cartels are getting is more than a twenty-fold increase in human trafficking revenue, and a twenty-fold increase in human trafficking revenue, and a twenty-fold increase in fentanyl and meth and heroin drug trafficking revenue.”

Following the debate, Walton doubled down on his claim that Biden and Mexican Cartels were in league with one another.

“It’s a gross example of Joe Biden and the Democrats wanting votes because they perceive that the people who are illegal immigrants, the majority will be Democrats. These illegal immigrants, they know that the borders are left wide open, and the drugs are being brought in at record numbers,” Walton said.

Monday’s debate was likely the last chance for Republican voters to compare the candidates side-by-side before the June 25 primary election. The winner of that ballot immediately becomes the front-runner in the November election, as Utah voters haven’t sent anyone other than a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Frank Moss in 1970.

Democrats nominated mountaineer and climate activist Caroline Gleich as their U.S. Senate candidate.

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