The investigation into an alleged bribe in the GOP primary for state treasurer appears to be expanding to include Utah Republican Party Chairman Stan Lockhart, who may have tried to get Richard Ellis out of the race.
Ellis won the party's primary Tuesday and his opponent, Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, is facing both a criminal investigation and a formal ethics inquiry by the Legislature that could force him out of office.
Walker has been accused by Ellis, the chief deputy state treasurer, of offering him the opportunity to keep his job at a much higher salary if he dropped out of the race. Such an offer is a class B misdemeanor.
Friday, longtime GOP operative Dave Hansen said he passed along a message from Lockhart to Ellis about 10 days after the party's May 10 convention. Hansen, now a consultant for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was trying to find out if Ellis wanted to stay in the race.
Hansen said he couldn't remember exactly what words he used.
"I just said Stan had asked me to check and see if Richard wants to stay in the race," Hansen said. "It was not that big of a deal. It's not like after the meeting I rushed back to Stan to convey the result. Don't read more into that than there really is."
But Ellis said he was told by Hansen, "If you drop out of the primary, you'll be taken care of" and that he assumed it was a reference to the offer Walker had made to raise his salary by $56,000 annually.
Hansen said he did not believe a job offer was made and that party leaders typically try to avoid convention and primary fights. He said he did not expect Ellis to drop out. "But I was asked to pass along the question, and I did," Hansen said.
Walker's campaign manager, Steve Hunter, said Walker was not aware of the request from Lockhart. "To me, that's not much of a story," Hunter said. "That's Stan doing his job to keep the party unity."
Lockhart did not immediately return a telephone call Friday.
Ellis referred to the conversation in documents filed with the Utah Supreme Court. Ellis had attempted unsuccessfully to force Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to turn the allegations against Walker over to the Attorney General's Office before the primary.
Both Ellis and Hansen said Friday the conversation occurred in person, although the court documents state an Ellis campaign consultant received a call from an unnamed member of the state party.
Walker had nearly enough votes at the state convention to eliminate Ellis from the race.
Ellis said had he been the one to come so close at convention, "I would have liked to have heard the same message go to my opponent just for the sake of avoiding a primary. I can see the party wanting to save money."
Ellis said he was introduced to Hansen by one of his closest advisers, former Lt. Gov. Val Oveson. Both Ellis and Hansen said they talked before the convention, in April, about whether Ellis should make his allegations against Walker public.
Ellis has said the offer from Walker came in March, but he had decided against making it public. That changed, Ellis said, when he was contacted about it by a newspaper in late May. At that point, Ellis filed an elections complaint with the lieutenant governor's office.
Walker has acknowledged saying he wanted Ellis and others in the treasurer's office to keep their jobs if he was elected to the state's top financial post, but denies offering Ellis a pay raise or asking him to end his candidacy.
Hansen said the advice he gave Ellis was that it was too late to go public with the allegations."I told him no, that it was too close to the convention. That, bluntly, he should have said something before, it was two months later," Hansen said. "That Mark would deny making the offer, whether he really did make the offer or not, and that it would just not work."