Envision Ogden: State Investigating Campaign Finance Scandal | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Envision Ogden: State Investigating Campaign Finance Scandal 

The investigation was once closed, but is reopened. What does it mean for Mayor Matthew Godfrey?

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When several businesses and organizations gave thousands of dollars to Envision Ogden, ostensibly a nonprofit business group, they believed their money would be used to attract outdoor businesses to the Ogden area, and not, as it turned out, to be used to donate more than $20,000 to local political races. Three donors said Ogden Mayor Mathew Godfrey personally solicited their donation. Some donors have policies against contributing to political campaigns, so they might be especially disheartened that as recently as Oct. 1, Envision Ogden gave $3,452 to the Utah Republican Party—and that’s not even the donations authorities investigated as possible fraud.

Envision Ogden is a shadowy group, with undefined leaders and a muddled mission. It began in 2007 under the auspices of being a business, marketing and community organization that would highlight Ogden's future as a recreation hub. Its Website, mostly untouched in the past two years since it became a scandal buzzword, only mentions the business promotions part of its mission and makes no mention of its political designs or organizers.

City Weekly has reviewed a 31-page report authored by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) that reveals detectives investigated Envision Ogden in 2009 for possible fraud and money laundering, which can be charged as felonies, among other lesser criminal and civil violations. The report was obtained through an open-records request by one of Godfrey’s most tenacious gadflies, Dan Schroeder, a professor at Weber State University, who was at one time told the investigation of Envision Ogden was closed. However, as recently as Nov. 2, the Utah Attorney General's Office declined to comment for this story, saying the investigation is open.

Why the investigation has been reopened remains unknown. Four suspects are listed in the investigation report, but two names were redacted. Realtor Abraham Shreve and former Ogden City Councilman Blain Johnson (who declined to run for reelection last year) are the names that remain.

Envision Ogden took form in February 2007 when it hosted its first event, a $120-per-plate dinner to celebrate the re-location of Amer Sports to Ogden, which 300 people attended. According to a Standard-Examiner article, Godfrey was promoting the group saying that Envision Ogden would work to cement the city as a hub of outdoor-recreation businesses.

Soon after, Envision Ogden’s Website—which then, as now, promotes skiing and hiking and not politics—began selling $25 tickets to its second event, a “sneak peek” at the city’s new Salomon Center, downtown’s high adventure rec center that today houses a Gold’s Gym, indoor surfing and indoor “skydiving.”

Other donors gave far more money. According to the SBI report, a representative of McKay-Dee Hospital—a division of nonprofit Intermountain Healthcare—told investigators Godfrey personally solicited a $5,000 or $10,000 sponsorship to the Amer Sports event. In the end, however, McKay-Dee and SelectHealth—the insurance arm of Intermountain—donated $500 each “in hopes of gaining a stronger position with Mayor Godfrey and his consideration as an insurance option to Ogden City employees,” the SBI report states. Likewise, representatives from Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce and Weber Economic Development Corporation said Godfrey solicited their donations, while a representative of Coldwell Banker Real Estate said it was a member of Godfrey’s staff who asked them for money. The report indicates that all eight donors interviewed have policies against donating to political campaigns. Some, including UBS and Intermountain, are legally obligated to stay out of politics.

Soon after Envision Ogden's coffers were flush, however, Abraham Shreve began offering Envision Ogden’s money to city council candidates running in the 2007 election.

One of those candidates was Sheila Aardema. She says she was surprised to be approached by Shreve offering a campaign donation. “I thought [Envision Ogden] was help build Ogden’s business core,” she told City Weekly.

At the time, Godfrey was pushing for a citywide gondola system and was facing opposition from city council members who decried the plan as impractical and too expensive.

Aardema lost her election to Blain Johnson. Interestingly, Johnson was also a recipient of Envision Ogden money and is a suspect in the SBI investigation. Records show Johnson received $1,500 directly from Envision Ogden, but he received a whopping $10,900 from a group named Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate. The address for FNURE on city campaign disclosure was the same as Johnson’s law firm. Another failed city council candidate, Royal Eccles, also reported receiving $9,700 from FNURE.

Records show FNURE received over $20,700 from Envision Ogden. According to the SBI report, Envision Ogden treasurer Jeff Lucas had been instructed by Shreve to write checks to FNURE, and on one occasion delivered a check made out to FNURE directly to Johnson.

Despite FNURE sharing the same address as his law firm, Johnson denied personal involvement and could not provide the names of others involved in the group when asked for details by The Salt Lake Tribune in March 2009.

That same month, activist Schroeder discovered that Envision Ogden’s detailed campaign-finance paperwork was available on the Internal Revenue Service’s Website for the first time. The more than $20,000 in donations Envision Ogden made to FNURE were detailed in addition to $1,184 spent on “mayoral campaign signs.” Schroeder complained to the city attorney. Seventeen months after the election, Eccles and Johnson’s campaign-finance disclosures were amended to reflect that their FNURE donations were actually from Envision Ogden.

According to the SBI report, Standard-Examiner reporter Scott Schwebke prompted the official investigation. Schwebke tells City Weekly he did contact the attorney general’s office, but “never filed any kind of formal complaint.” Activist Schroeder’s name is also listed as a complainant. The report states Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed then contacted SBI to open an investigation in March or April 2009.

Shortly after, Shreve wrote in a April 25, 2009, Standard-Examiner op/ed that Envision Ogden had always been intended as a political organization. It seems the donors didn’t know that, however.

The SBI report mentions no interview with Godfrey nor any subpoena for mayor’s-office records. As something like the lead citizen-journalist investigator, Schroeder is not satisfied with the professional news media or official investigators’ performances thus far. He thinks the investigation should focus on Godfrey. “Is there enough evidence to prosecute the mayor based on what we know now? Probably not,” Schroeder says. “But it’s easier for me to believe that he knew that [political campaigns] were one of the destinations of the money.”

Reed, the same attorney who asked to open the investigation, also declined to file charges based on the SBI report on June 30, 2009, and the investigation ended there. But now that it's reopened, it's unclear what may happen next.

Godfrey’s staff initially said the mayor would be willing to discuss Envision Ogden but later declined to respond to emailed questions (Update: see the linked blog post below for Godfrey's responses received after this story was posted). Shreve did not return messages requesting his comment. Johnson could not be reached by deadline.

Schroeder plans to release the report to the public Nov. 16.

Related on the Salt Blog: Envision Ogden: more revelations

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