SALT LAKE CITY — Overstock.com founder and former CEO Patrick Byrne continues to fuel Jonathan Johnson's campaign for governor with unprecedented amounts of cash.
Byrne dropped another $250,000 into the Republican candidate's bank account this week, bringing his total personal contributions to $400,000 so far. He also gave another $200,000 to Johnson's Promote Liberty PAC, with at least $50,000 of that going to the campaign.
Donations to Johnson, the Overstock board chairman, from other sources since the last reporting period in mid-April total about $47,000, according to financial disclosure reports.
A review of Utah financial disclosure records for the past five years shows no individual has given more to a single candidate than Byrne has to Johnson, though some organizations have donated hefty six-figure sums to candidates.
Utah does not limit the amount of money a person may donate to a political campaign.
Johnson campaign manager Dave Hansen defended Byrne's large contributions.
"Patrick and Jonathan have had a longstanding friendship and business relationship. Patrick is doing what he can to help a friend who is running for governor and who does not have access to the funds from donors that the incumbent governor has," Hansen said.
Johnson is challenging Gov. Gary Herbert for the GOP nomination. Delegates at the state Republican Party convention last month threw the majority of their support behind Johnson, and he and Herbert face each other in a June 28 primary election.
Campaign finance has become a hot topic the past couple of weeks as the two candidates have taken shots at each other's methods for funding their bids for governor.
Johnson called it "sickening" that Herbert referred to himself as "Available Jones" in a meeting at the exclusive Alta Club where lobbyists were told clients willing to contribute to the campaign could have time with the governor.
Herbert countered that Johnson is relying on "a sugar daddy rich guy" in Byrne, who took an indefinite leave of absence from Overstock last month for health reasons.
Byrne, at times, has been the state's largest individual political donor, giving to both Republicans and Democrats. He gave former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. $75,000 in 2004, Huntsman's biggest individual donation that year. Byrne also financially backed the 2007 pro-school voucher movement and the 2013 lawsuit challenging Utah's ban on same-sex marriage.
Sniping over money continued Friday as Herbert's campaign reacted to Byrne's latest donation to Johnson as well as the total he has given to date.
Herbert campaign manager Marty Carpenter said it's "hypocritical" of the Johnson campaign to criticize the governor for raising money from a broad base of businesses while accepting another $250,000 from Byrne.
"I think every Utahn should ask themselves what kind of strings are attached to that," he said.
Herbert, meantime, has collected $602,000 the past month, including $25,000 checks from more than a dozen donors, including two for that amount from Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller.
Carpenter went on to say voters should also be concerned that Johnson is a registered lobbyist, "and he is Patrick Byrne's registered lobbyist, and now he's running for governor. So in essence, Patrick Byrne is running his lobbyist for the highest office in our state and funding him at an unprecedented level."
State elections office records show Johnson is a registered lobbyist for Overstock and the Promote Liberty PAC, which advocates for education reform and religious freedom.
"That's crap," Hansen of the Herbert campaign making that an issue. "If they're trying to say that, they're truly grasping at straws."
Johnson, he said, is not a contract lobbyist but just making sure he follows Utah's lobbyist registration laws as any officer of a business would when speaking to legislators.
Hansen said the infusion of cash would go toward boosting Johnson's name recognition, including on radio and television.
A new UtahPolicy.com poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates shows 22 percent of Utahns have a favorable impression of Johnson, but 40 percent have never heard of him. The survey of 588 registered voters taken May 2-10 found 67 percent have a favorable opinion of Herbert, while 24 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him.
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