SALT LAKE CITY — At least 15 billboards promoting Jackie Biskupski's campaign for mayor emerged throughout Salt Lake City last week, but the former state legislator says she has had nothing to do with them.
Rather, a newly formed political action committee is paying for the billboards — a committee led by owners of the same company that built the signs advertising Biskupski's campaign: Reagan Outdoor Advertising.
The PAC, Utahns for Independent Government, is led by Dewey and Bill Reagan and has caused a stir in the city's elections office. Salt Lake City Recorder Cindi Mansell said she wonders whether it has allowed a legal loophole around the city's campaign contribution limits.
While Salt Lake laws limit direct mayoral campaign donations to $7,500, independent PAC spending has no legal limit. According to city campaign reports, Reagan made a $7,475 in-kind donation to Biskupski on Feb. 2.
"This is a really strange situation," Mansell said. "I know things like this have occurred on a federal level, but I've never seen it on a local level."
Mansell said she called the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office this week, and the office found no legal issues with the PAC. City election laws don't explicitly set donation limits for PACs, and there are no laws in place to regulate how much a PAC can spend for a candidate — other than coordination is not allowed, she said.
"If it really is independent, I don't know that any violation has occurred," Mansell said. "I'm won't know until this group turns in a financial declaration telling me what they've spent, for who, and if they are independent or coordinated."
The next city deadline for campaign contribution disclosures is Aug. 4.
Reagan Outdoor Advertising has had a long history of conflict with Mayor Ralph Becker, who has been an outspoken opponent of billboards in Salt Lake City. He's called them neighborhood blights, deterrents to economic development, and causes of scenic landscape degradation, and that's why Becker said he's "earned that company's enmity."
Declaring foul play Thursday, Becker called on Biskupski to "disavow support for this type of outside spending" and have the billboards stripped down.
"I hate to see this kind of money-driven politics coming from a special-interest group, in this case Reagan billboards, enter into the campaign and really evade our city campaign financing system to support a candidate in a way that clearly goes against the grain of what our policies are in Salt Lake City," the mayor said.
Since 1993, when Becker sat on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission, city officials have tried to cap and reduce the number of billboards allowed in city limits. Little progress has been made as a result of favorable billboard laws passed at the state level — actions that Becker says have been largely fueled by political contributions made by Reagan Outdoor Advertising.
"To me, this is a real affront to what we stand for in Salt Lake City and to the way a political campaign should be run," Becker said.
But Biskupski said she has no intention to have the billboards taken down. She said the PAC leaders have not done anything illegal, and they "have every right to do whatever they want through free speech."
"I was as surprised to see the billboards as everyone else," she said. "I wasn't involved in putting the billboards up, and I'm not about to get involved now. This is between the mayor and this PAC."
Biskupski fired back at Becker, saying said instead of focusing on mayoral politics, the mayor should be spending his energy determining how to "tighten" city ordinances to place limits on PAC contributions. She also said the situation arose because the mayor has "refused to meet" with the local company.
"This isn't necessarily pro-Jackie," Biskupski said. "I think it's unfortunate that a business in our city felt, in order to get the mayor's attention, they had to go to this extreme."
Nate Sechrest, the PAC's treasurer and general counsel of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, said the committee was formed to support political efforts to "bring an ideal of small government back to the forefront," not just to support Biskupski's campaign. He also denied that the creation of the PAC was a direct statement against Becker.
"We know Jackie would do a good job," Sechrest said. "We've had a long relationship with her in the past and know her well, and because of that, we thought maybe it would be a good time to see if we could provide some independent support."
According to state campaign finance records dating back to 2008, Reagan Outdoor Advertising donated $500 to Biskupski, along with multiple other legislators, each year until 2010.
However, Biskupski said she didn't always support their lobbying efforts, and she hasn't been in contact with the Reagan family since they donated her first billboard in February.
"My record is clear," she said. "There is no special-interest group who has ever been able to get me to do anything for them. I represent the people. I always have."
Sechrest did not disclose Wednesday how much the PAC has spent to support Biskupski, but he did say the PAC has paid for between 15 and 20 billboards.
According to campaign disclosures filed July 1, Biskupski has raised nearly $220,000 for her campaign, while Becker has collected almost $620,000.
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