Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he has done nothing immoral or wrong with his campaign finances. But he says Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, did by suggesting Shurtleff may have violated campaign laws, but declining to file a complaint about it with the Federal Election Commission.
"If you're going to be that irresponsible to say there may be something there, you better put up and file a complaint," Shurtleff told the Deseret News editorial board Wednesday.
In fact, he challenged Bennett to do exactly that, and predicted nothing illegal would be found.
Jim Bennett, the senator's son and campaign manager, said the senator would not take up Shurtleff's challenge. "The attorney general's fundraising practices are coming under public scrutiny as evidenced by a series of news reports, and with that kind of examination, these things tend to take care of themselves," he said.
The flap began earlier this month when the Deseret News reported that a political action committee formed by Shurtleff had raised and spent $250,000 this year on items often related to campaigns — from parade candy to buying convention tables — but said it was not actually part of Shurtleff's Senate campaign against Bennett.
The PAC took huge donations from corporations, which cannot legally give to federal campaigns although they can donate to state races. Also, they gave in amounts far beyond what is allowed for federal campaigns. Many of those largest donors also had legal problems with the state.
After the story appeared, Bennett was asked at a press conference he was holding on health care about Shurtleff's PAC spending. Bennett called it immoral and possibly illegal. He said he heard others might file a complaint with the FEC, but that he personally did not plan to do so.
Shurtleff said Wednesday, "A lot of people look at that and say, 'Well, I could make any allegation. Let me start throwing out illegal allegations about Bennett.'" He said if Bennett suggests Shurtleff did something illegal, he should back it up by filing a complaint.
Shurtleff also defended to the editorial board his acceptance of $227,000 — to his PAC and last year's attorney general race — from companies the Deseret News found had legal troubles with the state.
For example, Infusion Media/Thrive Learning gave his PAC $25,000 this year. The Commerce Department recently fined it $42,500 in civil cases alleging fraud, and other pending cases could bring fines of up to $60,000. The Federal Trade Commission sued the company in July, and a federal judge froze its assets.
Shurtleff told the editorial board, "I don't accept the proposition that campaign contributions buy anything, other than that it shows that they (donors), for whatever reason, support me and my candidacy and my policies."
When asked if he should avoid contributions from such companies to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing, Shurtleff said, "Where do I draw the line?"
For example, he said, "There are people out there who don't like payday lenders and say you shouldn't take their money. Well, they are legal, highly regulated companies that employ a lot of people and pay a lot of taxes," so he has accepted big donations from them.
He said starting to draw lines among legal donors might create a need to do background checks on all donors. "I couldn't take money from individuals without a background check," he said.
Shurtleff also said statewide races are expensive, and limiting too narrowly what money he accepts would allow only the rich to seek office.
"For a guy who's the son of school teachers and who's been a public servant most of my life … I'm not Bob Bennett with millions I can put in a race," he said.
Jim Bennett said, "Sen. Bennett isn't using any of his personal money in the campaign, and it's not Sen. Bennett's fault that Mark Shurtleff can't generate the level of support necessary to sustain a campaign."
Shurtleff also told the editorial board that contributions to him buy no favors.
"I have prosecuted and sued companies that have given me money," he said. "Despite all the innuendo and rumors … there has never been and never will be a documented case of pay-to-play, tit-for-tat" favors for contributions.
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