Campaigning in Utah: Utah Politicians’ Curious Purchases

What counts as a legitimate campaign expenditure? Certainly lunches with constituents, printing costs of flyers, and web design for a campaign site would fit anyone’s definition. But UPC has found some rather odd purchases some Utah candidates have made with the money donors gave them.

Spend any time going through Utah’s financial disclosures website on candidates, and you’ll quickly notice a trend on the differences between long-time incumbents and the first-time challengers. Challengers to sitting lawmakers are much more likely to have their filings filled with donations in $5, $10, or $20 increments, given to them the voters they talk to who like what they have to say and the policy changes they propose. Long-time incumbents, on the other hand, are much more likely to have their sheets filled with things like $2000 from the Utah Medical PAC, $3,499 from the Freedoms First PAC, $5,000 from EnergySolutions, or $1,800 from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Frequently, you also see donations flowing between sitting lawmakers, shifting their funds back and forth to those who might need it or away from those who need a tax break on their balance. While not every incumbent lawmaker fits that description of course, the differences are startling.

But while where a politician’s money comes from is usually the story, and tells you almost everything you need to know about the type of lawmaker they are, sometimes where they spend their campaign money is just as interesting of a story.

For example, pull up the records for Representative David Lifferth (Republican – Eagle Mountain). The twice-unopposed unabashed Tea Party supporter is often an incendiary figure, particularly on social media (after he made repeated references to Global Warming has a hoax, we invited him to debate a former NASA scientist on The UPC Show). Earlier this year, Representative Lifferth found himself in quite the media firestorm after he made comments perceived as racist about the NAACP. The situation deteriorated when he responded to the vast criticisms by claiming that he was “a hero of the civil rights movement.” But in the end, the Representative said he felt remorse for the comments, and agreed to meet with the local chapter of the NAACP and become a member.

Well, as it turns out, he expensed that membership to his campaign account.

Campaign finance laws in Utah are pretty lax, but they do still specify that politicians and candidates can only spend campaign donations on campaign-related items. So in order for that $30 membership to fall under the appropriate guidelines, Representative Lifferth must have categorized it (at least in his mind) as part of his campaign strategy to win elected office. He also expensed his membership to the NRA.

Lifferth disclosures naacp

Here’s an odd one: Candidate Robert Book, who’s running for office in the Salt Lake Millcreek area, has reported absolutely zero campaign donations or expenditures this year. Yet at town hall meetings and campaign events, he’s been handing out “Vote Book” flyers (see left). Maybe the flyers just magically appear?

robert book campaign flyerRepresentative Kraig Powell (Republican – Heber City) reports that he is using his campaign donations to pay for his newspaper subscription.

During the first filing period early this year, candidate Doug Sill (Democrat – Layton) reported that his only donation source was $85.48 from a “collection jar.” And per all of his subsequent filings, he has yet to spend a single dollar on his campaign other than some fans and office supplies.

Representative Dana Layton (Republican – Orem) was defeated by former Representative Brad Daw (Republican) in the June 24 primary and is no longer a candidate for office. Yet since her defeat, she has raised over $5,000 for her campaign, and has spent $4,775 on things like pavilion rentals, “campaign work,” gas, and direct mail pieces.

Holladay City Councilmember Sabrina Petersen (Republican) is running to become a state senator. After the first filing deadline, she had shelled out $1000 for her campaign but hadn’t taken in a single dollar in contributions. During the 2nd filing period, she spent $3,000, but only took in a single $250 donation from the Utah Association of Realtors PAC—leaving her a total of $3,755 in the red at that point. But it seems the money finally started flowing at the end of the summer. She picked up $5,000 from the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, $2,000 from the Utah Association of Realtors PAC, and another $1,000 from Senator Ralph Okerlund (Republican – Monroe).

In July, Petersen spent $279 on what she described on her official filings as a “return flight from vacation to be here for events.”

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