SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he looked at shutting down a political action committee tied to Gov. Gary Herbert's former campaign manager that's raised millions, but was told to hold off to protect an ongoing investigation.
"Law enforcement asked us not to do anything on this, so we've had our hands tied on this for the last 18 months," Cox told the Deseret News about the Americans for an Informed Electorate PAC.
Formed in February 2016, the PAC has collected almost $4.8 million in small contributions from around the country but has not used those funds to support any candidates or causes, according to filings with the lieutenant governor's office.
Joe Demma, who ran Herbert's 2010 campaign for governor and served as his chief of staff in the lieutenant governor's office before that, is a director of the corporation associated with the PAC and received consulting payments from the PAC.
Demma was removed as an officer by the PAC from its statement of organization on file with the state in September 2016, and later listed as a governing board member in July 2017, according to state Elections Director Justin Lee.
Cox, who is running for governor, said his staff alerted him to what he called "irregular types of activity" over a year and a half ago. Because of that and Demma's involvement, Cox said he contacted a law enforcement agency.
The lieutenant governor declined to identify the agency, but the Salt Lake Tribune, which published a story about the PAC earlier this week, has reported it is the FBI, citing a source.
FBI spokeswoman Sandra Yi Barker said Thursday she can’t "confirm or deny the existence of an investigation."
Cox said law enforcement asked his office not to take any action against the PAC or even suggest there were concerns because "they didn't want to draw any attention to it in any way while they were investigating."
He said his office, which oversees elections, routinely reaches out to PACs that have problems with their filings, but in those cases, "the people who get it wrong aren't bringing in millions of dollars and haven't worked for the office before."
But while the investigation continues, so have contributions to the PAC. In the last year alone, Americans for an Informed Electorate reported nearly $1.8 million in contributions. The most recent contributions reported this year were in April.
Cox said that's worrying.
"We watch it continue to happen and we were very concerned. But we have had ongoing discussions routinely with law enforcement to make sure that it was still being followed up on," he said.
"We trust them to do their jobs. We don't want to tell them how to do their jobs. So we've been anxious but patient in allowing them to do what they felt needed to be done," Cox said.
Still, he said he doesn't "have any regrets. I do think it was the right thing to do, to turn it over to law enforcement."
He said he has not been told "to date" when there may be action taken as a result of the investigation. Utah law requires political action committees to fulfill a political purpose, but Cox said that doesn't appear to be the case.
"This is thinly veiled, at best, political purposes and something that I would have shut down had I not been instructed to not do that," he said. "So I certainly would not give my money to this organization."
There have been complaints raised about the PAC posted to various online sites, including ScamFinance.com, which warned, "Handing out credit card information ... is obviously not a good idea so steer clear of them."
The site said in 2018 the company behind the PAC, Informed Electorate, "masquerades as a polling agency, but it ends up using high-pressure tactics to demand donations," an allegation supported by dozens of commentors.
Informed Electorate's website, votethewill.org, describes the PAC as "organized with the express purpose of gathering information and opinions from the electorate and, through various means, communicating those ideas to elected officials."
The website claims over 3.5 million "ongoing conversations," and notes "every contribution to IE PAC goes to support the infrastructure of data collection and broadcast."
Demma, who became a vice president of the Mountainland Technical College in Lehi last year, did not return a phone call seeking comment about the investigation into the PAC.
Jared Haines, the state's interim commissioner of the Utah System of Technical Colleges, said he has been in contact with the head of Mountainland about Demma and is not aware of any action that may be being considered.
"But we'll certainly be talking about what the considerations may be," Haines said.
Paul Edwards, the governor's outgoing deputy chief of staff, said in a statement about the PAC that Herbert "is tremendously disappointed to learn of the unethical conduct carried out by this organization, and emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior in all campaign-related matters.”
Edwards said the governor, who is not seeking re-election, "has had no knowledge of the so-called PAC formed by former state employee, Joe Demma. Demma separated from the lieutenant governor’s office 10 years ago."4 comments on this story
Demma, however, said on his LinkedIn profile that he served as a consultant to the governor from 2003 to 2016, and as Herbert's chief of staff and campaign manager from 2004-2012, counting the time Herbert was lieutenant governor.
The governor's office said Thursday Demma did do some freelance work for Herbert's 2016 re-election campaign.
But Herbert's chief of staff, Justin Harding, said that "in the past five years, Gov. Herbert has not once formally sought out Demma's advice, nor has Demma ever participated in any political meeting of which I have been a part."
Harding said Demma "doesn't attend the governor's political meetings, now, in the past, nor will he in the future."