Mark Shurtleff

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff seeks a third four-year term this year, and he's looked to some old friends for much of his campaign fundraising — like payday loan operators who charge an average of 500 percent interest annually.

Shurtleff, 50, is a conservative GOP attorney general who at times angered core Republicans over his more liberal stands, like including gays in hate crimes laws and opposing Amendment 3, which banned same-sex marriages in Utah.

Shurtleff raised $38,400 from payday loan owners this year, about $1 of every $4 given to him, according to new financial disclosure forms required before Shurtleff faces renomination at Saturday's Republican State Convention in Orem.

Shurtleff raised $161,625 in 2008, leading among candidates for attorney general, auditor and treasurer. Next best fundraiser was state Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, who is running for state treasurer. He raised $46,605.

The attorney general has also received a $50,000 donation from IWorks, nearly a third of all his donations. IWorks is an Internet firm whose CEO, Jeremy Johnson, donated a house for "Lost Boys," an outreach program that Shurtleff supports for young men who leave polygamous families.

Shurtleff also took $35,000 from Bloosky Inc., a Provo Internet firm whose top brass Shurtleff has also gotten to know. "When you run for re-election, you ask supporters for money, which is what I did," Shurtleff said.

He accepted $5,000 from 1-800 Contacts, a contact lens firm that in recent years has been giving more and more to Utah political races and, as a lobbyist, has entertained Utah legislators at expensive events.

Shurtleff became a poster boy for the payday lender trade with his support of its organizations. Earlier this year a group of payday loaners organized their own fundraiser for Shurtleff.

"It was a reception where I spoke," Shurtleff said, acknowledging that payday loan businesses welcome and appreciate his stands on their legal business operations.

In January of this year Shurtleff spoke in favor of payday loaners before a debate at the University of Utah, arguing that banning payday loans here (as has been done in a few states) would take away an option that allows people with poor credit "to avoid bankruptcy, repossessions and welfare. That would be immoral: not to give people that opportunity" of a payday loan.

In February 2007 Shurtleff accepted free round trip airfare from the payday loan association to speak before its convention in the Bahamas. Shurtleff decided to take his family on that occasion, paying for his wife and kids himself, the attorney general said. He said he did nothing wrong in accepting that trip. "I accept airfare from various groups when I fly out to speak to them."

Among payday loan groups donating to Shurtleff this year were: Advance America, $12,750; Axcess Financial Services, $6,100; Check Into Cash of Utah, $5,500; USA Cash Services Management, $3,000; QC Holdings, $2,700; Dollar Financial Group, $2,000; Cash America, $1,900; RAC Rent-A-Center, $1,250; Check$mart, $1,200; First Cash Financial, $1,000; and the Online Lenders Alliance, $1,000.

Unlike lawmakers, state executives like the governor and attorney general can accept political contributions during the general legislative session. And Shurtleff took much of the payday loan money during the 2008 Legislature, when the reception was held. At least two payday loans reform bills were considered then, but were relatively minor and sought to collect information on the industry and its customers. They did not attempt to cap interest rates on payday loans, as some other states have done.

An analysis by the Deseret News shows that overall, 94 percent of the money Shurtleff raised came from corporations. Another 3 percent came from political action committees of special interests, and 3 percent came from individuals.

No other candidate for attorney general, auditor or treasurer attracted such support from special interests. All but one of them attracted a majority of their money either out of their own pockets, or from individuals.

The exception is Walker in the treasurer's race. Nearly 87 percent of his money — $40,355 of his $46,605 raised — was transferred over from his old Legislature campaign account.

The big donations from special interests allowed Shurtleff to do some interesting spending, beyond traditional campaign expenses.

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Shurtleff's disclosure form says he spent $557 for tickets to the Phoenix Suns game for Mexican attorneys general; both Shurtleff and the Mexican lawyers were in Phoenix for a conference. He spent $500 as an entry fee for a team from his office to join the Lawyers Softball League. (Shurtleff can't play himself because of serious leg injuries.) He spent another $2,500 to help sponsor a basketball tournament. He made a $10,000 donation to the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. He donated another $10,000 to "Operation GOP Endowment" — the Utah Republican Party's attempt to set up a multimillion-dollar fund that would pay for party operations out of interest earned.

He spent $146 for a "clothing expense"; $45 to pay for a locksmith to open his car when he accidentally locked in his keys; and tens of thousands of dollars in donations to other politicians, including $5,000 to state Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo; $2,300 to the presidential campaign of John McCain (and also used money to travel to campaign for McCain); and $5,000 to Walker's treasurer campaign.

Utah has some of the most liberal campaign finance laws in the nation. Any candidate can accept any amount of money from any legal source, including businesses. And candidates can spend their campaign funds in any legal way they wish, including giving it to themselves. Recent attempts to tighten up those laws in the Legislature have failed.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; lee@desnews.com