SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday he regrets the "tone and tenor" of a secretly recorded fundraising meeting with lobbyists and that when he called himself "Available Jones," he only meant he was ready to meet with donors.
"You have to go out and talk to people. Money just doesn't come in," Herbert told reporters after making a presentation at the Utah Taxpayers Association's annual conference alongside the other candidates running for governor.
He said the April 27 breakfast meeting at the exclusive Alta Club where lobbyists were told clients willing to contribute to the campaign could have time with the governor was "as legal as can be" and not unethical.
That's because it was made clear that "there is no quid pro quo. So there's no, 'Give us this and we'll give you that.' It's a matter of, 'Do you support our candidacy?'" the governor said.
But he acknowledged he regretted "probably the tone and tenor" of the meeting.
"Of course, we didn't know we were being recorded. We thought we had all friends there and so that probably put us a little bit off guard. So the 'Available Jones' just (meant) that I'm available, which is true," Herbert said.
But both his opponent in the June 28 Republican primary election, Jonathan Johnson, and the Democratic candidate for governor, Mike Weinholtz, were critical of Herbert for linking campaign contributions to access.
"I think it's sickening," said Johnson, the chairman of Overstock.com. "The governor says, "Bring the check before or after or during, whenever. I'm available. I'm Available Jones.'"
Johnson said he "didn't know what that meant until I looked at the old Li'l Abner (comic strip), but that's someone who will do anything for a price. To me, that reference that he made shows what his attitude is."
Weinholtz said, if elected, he'll push for changes in the law to put a stop to such fundraising tactics.
"It's how you do it," the chairman and founder of CHG Healthcare Services said. "To say that my time is available for a check is not the ethical way to go about it. That's why we need campaign finance reform. It's why we need ethics reform."
Herbert said he understands the concerns surrounding the meeting, citing a "negative connotation" even though lobbyists represent businesses and "have a voice that needs to be heard."
The governor said the lobbyists at the meeting represented clients who wanted to help him after his loss to Johnson in the delegate vote at the GOP state convention the previous weekend.
"You can appreciate the fact that I'd just come out of a convention where I was a low total vote-getter, and to have a signficant army of people say, 'Hey, we want to help you in the primary where you can win this election,' I was enthusiastic," he said.
Herbert said at an earlier series of meetings with clients of one of the lobbyists at the meeting, Doug Foxley, that were held in Foxley's office, he received contributions but did not talk about policy.
"They came to deliver. It's like have a golf tournament where people bring a check. Or a gala. Or some type of fundraiser," the governor said. "There was no discussion about policy at all other than getting to know people" and their businesses.
Going forward, Herbert said his campaign needs "to be more sensitive to the optics and to how we do things. So I think we will in fact probably change a little bit of the tone."
But the governor said he still has to raise money even though it's "the worst thing about politics" because he's not wealthy. Weinholtz has given $1 million to his own campaign while Herbert said Johnson is relying on "a sugar daddy rich guy."
Johnson's biggest campaign contributor is Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, who recently took an indefinite leave of absence as CEO of the online retailer for medical reasons.
Byrne knows "I'm my own man," Johnson said, and there will be more scrutiny of his relationship with Overstock.com "that doesn't exist when the governor is fleecing people at $5,000 or $10,000 or $25,000 a pop. That's real money."
The latest postings to the state's candidate financial disclosure site shows Herbert has raised just under $600,000 since mid-April, compared with about $44,000 for Johnson.
The governor's campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, said Herbert is just letting his supporters know he's going to work hard to get re-elected a third time after assuming the office in 2009.
Carpenter said the governor's statement at the meeting with lobbyists that he was letting others run the state while he campaigned "was more of a throwaway line" to emphasize he wasn't discouraged.
Herbert, he said, was making it clear, "I'm going to be available to meet with people. I'm going to be available to shake hands. I'm going to go out there and do what has to be done on the campaign trail."
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