SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert says that he did nothing wrong in meeting with representatives of a coal mining firm last fall and he won't be hiding in his office refusing to talk to constituents.
"I'm here to govern and listen," he told the Deseret News in a wide-ranging interview on Friday. A mild-mannered fellow, Herbert became excited in talking about the accusations against him, waving his arms and slapping his hand on the table.
Herbert said he sees little point in trying to play defense against political attacks in this election year, and recent criticisms "say more about my opponent" than himself.
Salt Lake Mayor Peter Corroon, a Democrat challenging Herbert for the right to serve out the final two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term, after news reports about the meeting and a $10,000 donation to the governor's campaign, called on Herbert to return the contribution from Alton Coal Development LLC, a firm seeking approval for a strip mine in southern Utah.
The company plans to mine up to 2 million tons of surface coal on 635 acres of private land near the tiny Kane County town of Alton. The firm has yet to obtain a permit, which is contingent on the company securing a multimillion-dollar reclamation bond.
Corroon also called for an independent investigation into Herbert's acceptance of the campaign contribution, a meeting Herbert held with the coal firm officials, and a state division giving approval for the mine to proceed.
Herbert says he won't return the donation. While he did meet with coal officials, he said he made no promises one way or the other about the permitting process. And that state officials had already decided to give the mine needed state permits.
There will be no independent investigation, because there is nothing to the accusations, Herbert's office has said.
Any government official should try to "avoid the appearance of evil," the governor said. "But there will also be those who try to make two plus two equal five," and public officeholders can do little about that.
He said around 400 individuals and groups have donated to his 2010 campaign, and he doesn't know all of them, doesn't know how much they gave or when. He didn't know that Alton officials gave $10,000 to his campaign when he met with them last September.
"My fundraisers do their job. I run the executive" branch of government. And it's proper to keep the two entities separate, he added.
"If 30 days ago" someone gave to his campaign, and he talks with someone, and 30 days later some state action takes place "people can try to connect the two." He asked what he should do. "Am I supposed to say 'I can't talk to you?' "
"You can't isolate yourself," he said.
In the end, "it's why we have the phrase "dirty politics' " — not directly accusing Corroon or others of that.
In a related issue, Herbert said that he has not decided whether to veto any bill, including a forthcoming ethics reform measure that will limit campaign contributions in various state contests, setting a $20,000 limit in gubernatorial races over a four-year term.
"I think legislators spent more time" figuring out campaign contribution limits in state House and Senate races than in a statewide race like his, Herbert said.
GOP House leaders say they will run a bill placing limits as recommended by the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy. That is $5,000 from an individual or entity over a two year period in a state House race, $10,000 for a state Senate race over a four year period or $20,000 for a statewide office (like governor or attorney general) over a four-year period.
As he has said before, Herbert prefers quick and complete contribution disclosure rather than contribution limits, which he sees as an attempt to hamper "free political speech."
And the commission didn't consider that as a gubernatorial candidate he has to run statewide, a geographic area 29 times larger than a state Senate district. Yet a $20,000 limit is not 29 times larger than a $10,000 limit, he pointed out. "Where is the logic in that?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.