A.G. Sean Reyes — yet again — spends taxpayer cash on a lawsuit to serve his own political ends, Robert Gehrke explains

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is suing a bipartisan, national attorneys general organization that he had a hand in overseeing to score political points.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Attorney General Sean Reyes has a long track record of using his public office and taxpayer money for his self-serving political grandstanding, but a lawsuit he filed this month takes it to another level.

Reyes sued the National Association of Attorneys General, or NAAG, claiming the bipartisan group isn’t transparent in the way it manages money it received in a string of massive lawsuit settlements — like the tobacco and opioid cases — and might be investing in funds that use environmental and social factors in their investing strategies.

Basically, he’s jumping on the ESG (environmental, social and governance) train, the latest bogeyman for the right wing, and he got a little buzz on conservative news websites. A week ago, Utah Treasurer Marlo Oaks told a group of Salt Lake County Republicans that ESG part of “Satan’s plan” — which makes me think Satan needs more interesting plans.

This stuff is catnip to politicians like Reyes who peddle grand conspiracies based on fuzzy details. But given even the smallest bit of scrutiny, the case the attorney general is using our tax money to pursue completely collapses.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox looks on as Attorney General Sean Reyes talks about pending lawsuits with social media companies to protect the youth, during a news conference at the Capitol, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

First, what is the NAAG? The organization was set up by the state attorneys general back in the early 1900s to coordinate efforts when it comes to training, messaging and helping with big litigation.

It differs from another organization, the Attorney General Alliance — the group that helped arrange Reyes’ trip to watch the World Cup soccer match in a posh suite paid for by the Qatar government — in that AGA takes a lot of corporate money while NAAG does not.

NAAG is run by an executive committee made up of attorneys general from both parties. The group’s budget, which seems to be the source of Reyes’ beef, is likewise overseen by a bipartisan finance committee.

In fact, Reyes served on the NAAG executive committee from 2018 through 2019. So it’s not like he or his fellow Republican AGs are not in a position to raise questions, without paying for a lawsuit, about ESG.

And in the past, they never did raise these concerns, according to Chris Toth, who spent 18 years on the NAAG staff, including as the group’s executive director.

“This whole ESG thing is just absolute fiction,” he told me this past week. “I have attended every finance-related meeting at NAAG for the 18 years I was there … and not once did any attorney general or any staff member ever raise the issue of ESG investments. It just didn’t come up.”

But let’s talk a little about where the money Reyes’ lawsuit is targeting actually came from.

As I mentioned, NAAG has, in the past, pitched in on huge, complex multi-state lawsuits, like when the attorneys general sued Big Tobacco; or when they went after Volkswagen for fudging emissions tests; or sued predatory mortgage lenders that crashed the housing market; or when they went to court against pharmaceutical companies for deceptive marketing of deadly opioids.

In one opioid case, for example, the NAAG executive committee agreed to pony up $7 million to help fund the litigation. When the case was settled, the money was paid back and another chunk was used to create a digital library of the documents from the case to help with future lawsuits.

Those were the terms that every attorney general — including Reyes — negotiated and signed onto. If Reyes really thought it was a rotten deal for Utah taxpayers, he was negligent to sign it rather than pushing for better terms.

But he did sign it. And not only that, his office pushed out a news release boasting about the settlement, saying he was “very pleased” with the outcome.

Now he’s changed his tune. His lawsuit claims part of the money belongs to Utah taxpayers and he wants a judge to order NAAG to provide a full accounting of the funds.

It’s a flimsy argument that we, as taxpayers, get to pay for.

Beyond that, Toth said, NAAG will have to spend money litigating the case, rather than training staff attorneys from around the country, including Utah, on consumer protection, civil rights and so forth.

“It’s a double-whammy,” he said. “Not only are they losing the opportunity to take advantage of those funds to make staff better … but they’re also having to divert money for this lawsuit that could be used in much more constructive ways.”

There’s one person who seems to benefit: Sean Reyes, who gets to polish his ultra-conservative credentials and pretend like he’s trying to help fight Satan’s plan.