Long-dead muckraker and hopeless cynic H.L. Mencken riffed, “Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.” While some of that blame resides with Mencken’s slavish Fourth Estate, most of it resides with masters of manipulation like Salt Lake County GOP boss James Evans.
As a reporter for this rapscallion rag, I wrote about $36,000 in possibly illegal campaign contributions from 18 employees of developer Dell Loy Hansen to Republican candidate for district attorney Lohra Miller [“Proxy Politics,” Sept. 21, City Weekly]. A colleague from another paper congratulated me on a nice scoop, a rarity, which felt kind of good. But then he made a prediction: If the Democrats pursue an investigation, it will only help Miller. Whaaat!?
She’ll claim it’s a partisan attack, he explained.
But it wasn’t partisan. It was me. I walked into Hansen’s Wasatch Property Management offices of my own volition. Given the county’s recent crackdown on unfettered political giving, I wanted to ask Hansen what he thought about so much money going to one candidate from 18 of his employees. When Hansen volunteered that those donations were the result of a round of $2,000 bonuses he gave to select managers and executives'whom he urged to donate to Miller'I would have been derelict to miss the red flags. So I wrote an article suggesting the donations might violate a county ordinance against making campaign contributions with someone else’s money.
Knowing the story was coming, James Evans ramped up the pre-emptive damage-control strategy. In a piece that ran in the Deseret Morning News the same day as mine, he hammered Miller’s Democratic opponent Sim Gill for campaign disclosures that omitted listing the employers or occupations of some donors. By letting Gill’s omissions slide for three reporting periods, Evans claimed the Democrat-led Salt Lake County Clerk’s office was playing political favorites. Never mind that nine other candidates, including five Republicans, made the same mistakes without a word from the clerk. Evans had set the tone.
Still, I told my cynical colleague that the mainstream press would glom on to the Miller story, which he agreed was much more serious than Gill’s disclosure errors. I scanned the papers eagerly each morning but found not a single mention for 18 days'an eternity in the life of a political campaign. Meanwhile, I got in touch with Wasatch employees, several of whom said they gave the donations to Miller under duress. The so-called “unrestricted” bonuses weren’t delivered until after the employees cut personal checks to Miller’s campaign, they told me. And one former employee, since identified as Shauna Hardy, was so guilt-racked that she had Miller redirect the “dirty money” to a charity. So I wrote a story about it [“Lohra Who?” Oct.11, City Weekly].
In a Salt Lake Tribune article two days earlier titled “Cash Quibbles Mar DA Race,” reporter Derek Jensen fell into Evans’ trap. “To be sure, the attacks are partisan, bubbling as they are from party leaders on opposite sides,” Jensen wrote. He quoted Miller saying, “By making these types of allegations ? it makes the District Attorney’s Office politics as usual, and that’s not what I’m about.”
In the Deseret Morning News, Evans conflated the issues, “We believe Sim Gill intentionally hid the employer and/or occupation information to keep this information secret as long as possible so as to better facilitate the timing of their attack on Lohra Miller.?
It’s bulls't is what it is. Sure, I called Democrats to weigh in, but none of them ever called me, and all evidence of improper donations to Miller came from Hansen or his employees. How in hell is that partisan? Miller took money from a fat cat’s employees, some of whom didn’t want to give it. One guy had no idea who Miller was before plunking down two large, and he admittedly did not get “that warm tingly feeling.” Those are facts; not attacks. If anything, Democrats should be faulted for not fighting back when Miller and Evans baselessly accused Gill of coordinating a smear campaign. But what good would that do, when the dailies couldn’t even confirm the basic facts of the allegations, let alone the merits?
Without explanation, the News and the Tribune adjusted downward the number of Hansen’s employees who gave to Miller from 18 in previous reports to 12 in the latest. In fact, disclosure forms show that at least 18 employees working for Wasatch companies donated. In a Tribune article, Miller asserted that she contacted each donor immediately after the first City Weekly story ran, and all but Hardy confirmed they were happy to give. On the contrary, weeks after that story ran, two donors told me they had no such conversation with Miller.
It wasn’t until a month after the story broke that esteemed constitutional law and ethics scholar John J. Flynn called on the district attorney and attorney general to investigate. Ironically and despicably, with the Tribune playing credulous stenographer again, Miller branded Flynn as a proxy in Gill’s campaign “to distract the voters from the fact I am winning on the issues.” Evans even had the stones to call Flynn a “partisan hack.” As Flynn so eloquently put it, “Those assholes.?
Finding that the county ordinance against proxy contributions has no criminal penalty attached, state and county attorneys decided it would be pointless to investigate whether the donations violated the ordinance. Miller, of course, confused the no-decision with a knock out.
In a Tribune article, she claimed vindication, again excusing herself as the victim of Gill’s “dirty campaign tactics.” She went on to say that the damage of such “slanderous allegations made in the last weeks of an election ? can never be repaired.” Let’s only hope. As a now-former journalist, I get to say that.
For Hardy’s part, “I know I did the right thing and fixed my unethical behavior,” she said. “Regardless of what the DA’s office decided to do, [Miller and Hansen] are going to have to live with their consciences, and the guilt that goes with knowing the truth.” 3
Shane Johnson recently left City Weekly to begin work in a related field. We wish him well, and hope he will deliver on his promise to serve as a freelance writer for this paper.