SALT LAKE CITY — Derek Miller is the most powerful member on the Utah Inland Port Authority board. As chairman, he runs the meetings. He steers the discussion. He sets the agendas.
Meanwhile, Miller wears another hat: He’s also president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, a private organization funded by dues paid by member businesses. It’s Utah’s largest and longest-standing business association, acting as the voice of Utah’s business community.
Miller says he juggles both hats without risk of conflicts. But new information about a committee the chamber has marketed as an “exclusive” group focusing on the inland port has raised questions about whether Miller’s role on the inland port board is conflict-of-interest free.
A chamber marketing email obtained by the Deseret News indicates that Miller was personally offering a national rail business a spot on the chamber's influential and "exclusive International/Inland Port Committee" in exchange for $10,000, the chamber's membership fee.
The email, taken within context of Miller’s leadership role as the port authority board chairman, raises questions about whether the chamber’s committee invite encouraged “pay to play” — requiring $10,000 for businesses to sit privately at a table with other business players and the port board’s own chairman — and whether Miller’s influence on the port authority board could be helping financially pad his other organization’s pockets.
“I am concerned that this looks like pay to play,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski told the Deseret News. “That, you know, people with money get to have a voice. That’s deeply concerning.”
After the Deseret News raised questions about the email, Miller said he doesn't believe any "line was crossed," but he directed chamber staff to draw a clearer line against potentially using his influence on the inland port board to recruit new chamber members.
Miller said the chamber will take more measures in the future to guard against any risks of real or perceived impropriety.
In the Oct. 11 email, Mark Harvey, the chamber’s business development senior representative, tells Ean Johnson, a regional manager for BNSF Railway, that Miller himself “would like to put you on the exclusive International/Inland Port Committee.”
“He believes your leadership would add value to the committee,” Harvey wrote in the email. “This committee includes a group of Utah’s leaders that are collaborating at the highest level possible to make the important decisions for this great state, and he would like to invite you to be part it.”
In a follow-up email to Johnson requesting more information about the committee, Harvey writes the committee meets once a quarter for a financial commitment of $10,000.
According to the Salt Lake Chamber’s website, the organization has five levels of yearly memberships — ranging from $500 for a “Basic” membership, $1,000 for “Executive,” $3,000 for “Bronze,” $7,500 for “Silver” and $10,000 for “Gold.”
“The Gold Level increases your influence among elected officials and access to your customers and peers,” the chamber’s website says in a description of the top-level membership. “Help develop policies and positions on key issues affecting Utah’s community at the federal, state and local level.”
The $10,000 payment requirement to be a member of the Salt Lake Chamber and participate in the committee of Utah leaders “collaborating at the highest level possible” regarding international trade and the inland port raises questions about why the Salt Lake Chamber was marketing the committee in such a way — when, in fact, the Utah Inland Port Authority is the body with the power to make such decisions over the inland port.
The Utah Inland Port Authority is the public body overseeing planning in Utah’s inland port — a global trade hub expected to be the largest economic development project in Utah’s history. It’s envisioned to be a well-oiled imports-and-exports machine, made up of a far-reaching network of shipping yards, rail lines, truck stops and connections to the Salt Lake City International Airport to maximize Utah’s place in the global economy.
In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Miller and Jonathan Hafen, an attorney at the firm Parr Brown, Gee and Loveless and the chamber’s international committee’s chairman, told the Deseret News the $10,000 email invite does not translate to pay to play or any conflict of interest because the Utah Inland Port Authority and the Salt Lake Chamber are separate entities, and neither has undue influence over the other.
Hafen also said the chamber's International Committee does not have "decision-making authority" — something he said he tells committee members at the beginning of every meeting.
"It's absolutely not talking about decision-making, but they do give very valuable insights," Miller said. "These are people who do this stuff every day, and if they didn't have a voice, we wouldn't end up with the kind of project that we need."
"We're just there to learn from each other, and I guess to some extent try to collaborate, think about what the business community should think about the inland port and how we can make it the best possible inland port that we can," Hafen said.
Additionally, Miller and Hafen said the chamber’s International Committee has “existed for many years,” focusing on a variety of issues, including hosting trade delegations, increasing exports and hosting the Utah Global Forum. Recently, the committee decided to discuss the inland port because of its connection to international business, Miller said.
“All chamber members are invited and encouraged to attend any committee that piques their interest,” Miller said.
“Under typical circumstances, the chamber business development team recruits new members by communicating chamber efforts that may be interesting to the business,” Miller said. “For example, a health care company would naturally be interested in the health care committee. This is why BNSF was invited by the business development team to participate in the International Committee.”
However, in a follow-up email to the Deseret News after a reporter raised conflict-of-interest questions, Miller acknowledged that his “role on the inland port board” makes the international committee “unique.”
“I did not communicate this uniqueness clearly to the business development team,” Miller emailed. “That has been corrected. The team understands that my position on the Inland Port Board should not be used to recruit new chamber members.
“While I do not believe the line was crossed with BNSF, I want to make sure we do a better job of not getting close to that line,” Miller said.
In response to a request for a list of non-chamber members who were invited to join the International Committee, Miller said, “a review with the business development team indicated only BNSF.”
Later, however, Flores said a secondary review found "it appears there was one other non-member company" that was invited to join the chamber to participate on the International Committee.
"This invitation came from one of our sales staff members who had sat in on one of our International Committee meetings and took it upon himself to use it as a tool to drive membership sales," Flores wrote. "This person did not have permission to use Derek's position as chairman of the inland port board to sell chamber memberships, nor did his efforts in these two cases result in new chamber memberships."
In response to a request for a list of companies that were invited and are currently participating in the committee, Miller “respectfully” declined.
“As a private organization of private businesses, we do not give out membership lists,” he said.
'Pay to play'
Biskupski — who has been a critic of what she calls the state’s takeover of the inland port, and who has openly accused Miller and another port board member of dirty politics after a recording of a board meeting caught the two board members whispering about her and her political challenger — thinks the situation could have a “conflict of interest.”
Biskupski said she hadn’t seen the email thread, but she’s been “aware” of the International Committee. She noted Salt Lake City pays the membership dues to be a member of the chamber, “but for the chamber to turn around and use our taxpayer dollars to solicit businesses to specifically serve on a committee that will have say on how the port is developed looks like pay to play.”
“He can call it membership or whatever, but I’m sorry, he is specifically asking — he is using our taxpayer dollars to do this,” she said. “I am very concerned about that.”
But Miller said he doesn't believe the situation amounts to pay to play or a conflict of interest, noting the committee is just one forum for him to hear from his constituents but doesn't have undue influence on his actions on the inland port board.
"The money does not influence," Miller said. "The information is a great influence."
"It would be different if there was an email that said, 'Hey, Derek Miller is the president of the chamber — he's also the chair of the inland port board — and if you paid $10,000 then you can come be part of this group that's making secret decisions,'" Miller said. "But that's not what it says."
Miller is specifically appointed on the Utah Inland Port Authority to represent the state's business community.
"While I disagree with the notion that there's some sort of undue influence, I don't agree with that, but certainly 100 percent agree with the fact that the business community is an important voice in this project, and I'm proud to represent the business community in this effort," Miller said.
Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, the left-leaning group that aims to ensure "balance, transparency and accountability" in Utah's politics, said he wasn't sure if the situation actually rises to the level of violating conflict-of-interest rules, "but it definitely smells bad."
"If we don't know who's attending those meetings, then we can't see if there's a clear connection to who's paying $10,000 and who is Derek Miller pushing an interest for on the port authority," Thomas said. "Because it's a behind-the-scenes committee, the public isn't able to see those connections."
Hafen pointed out he has personally invited Biskupski to the committee — since Salt Lake City is a paying member — but she has sent Ben Kolendar, deputy director of the city's economic development department, to attend in her place.
Asked why the mayor doesn't attend, the mayor's spokesman, Matthew Rojas said, "There are a number of commissions and boards that the mayor is invited to … and it's common practice for the mayor to send a proxy, especially when that proxy may be someone with expertise."
"But the larger question is why, when confronted with the a potential play-to-play concern, is the head of the (Salt Lake Chamber) trying to shift the focus of the mayor attending?" Rojas said.
In response to a follow-up comment from Miller, the chamber's spokeswoman, Kim Flores, said the chamber is "grateful" for Biskupski's involvement and participation in the International Committee meetings in the past, and we just hope that that continues."
The Deseret News obtained the chamber email thread with BNSF after a wide-reaching open records request of inland port board member communications through Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
While the chamber is a private organization and thus its emails are private, the emails became public after the BNSF official forwarded the email thread to Lara Fritts, Biskupski’s economic development director, asking for her thoughts.
“I’m not sure exactly what’s being asked of me for $10,000,” Johnson wrote to Fritts.
Asked whether Fritts ever followed up with Johnson about the email, Rojas said Fritts “never advised him one way or the other because she didn’t know anything about the International Committee.”14 comments on this story
Attempts to reach Johnson were returned by BNSF spokesman Joe Sloan, who said Johnson “no longer covers” the company’s Utah territory. He said BNSF decided against joining the Salt Lake Chamber as a budgeting decision, since the rail company gets “requests from hundreds” of communities in its 28-state network to be members of chambers or economic development corporations.
“While we are members of many, we have to evaluate where it is best to place resources/funds. BNSF is always interested in discussions with potential customers anywhere in our network,” Sloan wrote in an email. “We will continue to stay connected to the organization in Utah, like the Salt Lake Chamber, as we seek connections to businesses interested in freight rail service.”
Editor's note: The Deseret News is a member of the Salt Lake Chamber.