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Utah's big political donors have friends in high places

Published May 11, 2011 11:39 am

Utah • Individuals and corporations get access to influential friends.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The bipartisan parade of praise was unusual.

Eleven of Utah's 29 senators rose on Feb. 17 to voice tributes to Beverley Taylor Sorenson, widow of billionaire inventor James LeVoy Sorenson. She and her family watched on the Senate floor as it unanimously passed a resolution honoring her charity.

"Perhaps we should set aside a day annually for this wonderful family," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, noting that he sponsored a similar resolution three years earlier.



Senators were honoring not just a philanthropist, but the state's most generous individual political donor.

Sorenson personally gave at least $103,350 to Utah politicians and parties in the 2010 election cycle. That included donating to 90 of the 104 legislators who served in this year's general session — including all the senators who gave speeches praising her.

Despite tough times that led to budget cuts in many state programs this year, lawmakers decided to fund a once-threatened $4 million for the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Art Program in schools — a program that lawmakers had named for Sorenson, and for which she had lobbied.

Other Utahns may not know Sorenson well, but politicians who benefit from her donations do. The same is true for most of the other individuals and groups on the list of top donors in the state.

They are identified through a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of donations to federal and state politicians, parties, initiatives and political action committees in Utah during the 2010 election cycle. Some other findings from that analysis include:

• Besides Sorenson, most individuals who give large political donations in Utah are Democrats. They say they give big to help offset the state's overwhelming Republican advantage.

• Corporations and their political action committees, however, are really the biggest donors in the state. Most of their money goes to incumbents who can help protect their business interests, and most incumbents are Republicans.

• Tobacco, beer and payday lender groups give large amounts in heavily Mormon Utah, even though LDS teachings denounce smoking, drinking and high-interest consumer debt. Most of these donations go to incumbents who are LDS.

Individuals • While wealthy philanthropist Sorenson looks like someone who might be expected to be a big donor in Utah, others on the list do not — including some gay activists, numerous liberals and even a couple of Wyoming residents who give big to Utah neighbors. (A list of the top 20 individual and overall donors can be found online at bit.ly/kPOvdO).

Sorenson, 87, declined an interview about why she gives. Foxley & Pignanelli, the lobbying firm that represents her family's companies, issued a statement saying that her political and charitable donations are "made with an overriding priority: the best interest of her fellow citizens, especially the children."

After Sorenson, the No. 2 individual donor is Arthur Lipson, manager of Western Investments, a Democrat who gave at least $99,933 in the 2010 cycle — almost all of it to fellow Democrats.

"I don't do business with any government, so I don't give in order to get access" to politicians, he said. "I give money to try and move the country in the right direction."

What does he get for his money?

"Damn little, at least in Utah. It's probably the worst purchase I make," he said considering how conservative the state is. But Lipson says he gives big in part to help his outmanned Democrats.

At No. 3 is Bruce Bastian, one of the co-founders of WordPerfect and a gay-rights activist. He gave at least $81,350 to Utah groups in the 2010 cycle, all of it to Democrats and gay-rights groups. But that is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 million he once gave to fight California's gay-marriage-banning Proposition 8.

"I try to counter what's happening on the other side, that's the main reason I give," he said.

Even though many of the candidates he supports lose in conservative Utah, he says that his money "gives them a voice. Part of the fight is at least being able to present the side you want. Without any money, you don't even have that."

Another gay-rights activist, attorney Jane Marquardt, was No. 9 among individual donors, giving $32,115 — about $6,000 to Democrats, and most of the rest to Equality Utah and Planned Parenthood.

John Netto was No. 4 on the list. The president of a firm that treats water used in natural gas wells is a relative newcomer to Utah politics. He gave $65,205 to Democrats and gay-rights groups — and $52,825 of it went to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Corroon.

"We essentially have a one-party system in this state," he said. "I hoped to get some counterbalance by helping to elect a Democrat as governor."

Netto also ran for the Utah House himself, spending more than $10,000 on the race (which is not included in his other totals). He then even gave $1,100 to Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, who had defeated Netto in in-party races, to help Briscoe win the general election. Netto said he liked the taste of politics he had last year, and plans to run again for something.

Three of the state's top 15 donors are in the same family, even though two of them are Wyoming residents. Ian Cumming, chairman of Leucadia National Corp., was No. 8, giving $33,500. His wife, Annette, was No. 7, giving $37,600. They live in Jackson, Wyo.

Their son, John, was No. 15, giving $26,100. He is CEO of Powdr Corp., which owns the Park City Ski Resort, among others. The Cummings give almost exclusively to Democrats, and some liberal PACs.

While Ian and Annette Cumming are Wyoming residents now, they have Utah ties. Ian was once on the Utah Board of Regents, and Annette was on the Salt Lake City airport board as well as some national committees for Democrats.

Groups • Corporations and other groups that are the state's overall largest donors tend to give to incumbents who can help their business interests — and that means mostly to Republicans.

At the top of the list are Realtors. They and groups that represent them combined to donate more than $504,000 during the 2010 cycle. For every $1 they gave to Democrats, they gave $2.52 to Republicans.

Not only do Realtors give a lot, they also get elected. Fifteen members of the Legislature make their living in real estate. Gov. Gary Herbert once served as president of the Utah Association of Realtors. Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is an attorney specializing in real-estate law.

With that, Governing magazine wrote a few years ago, "Not surprisingly, Utah has some of the toughest real estate laws in the country — protecting both private property rights and the business interests of Realtors."

Some of the biggest fights through the years in the Legislature have been between banks and credit unions, who battle over what "bank-like" services credit unions may offer. Both are high on the list of big group donors. Banks are No. 2, giving at least $472,561. Credit unions are No. 5 at $181,209. Both give to majority-party Republicans by better than 3-1 margins.

EnergySolutions (counting donations by its officials and employees) was No. 3 among group donors, giving $282,400.

Of note, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah — who did not receive any EnergySolutions money — pushed a bill to block the company from importing radioactive waste from Italy. Opposing it was Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who once lobbied for the company. He received $5,000 in donations from it in 2010, and $26,000 in 2008.

Some other key contributors among groups are Merit Medical Solutions, a company owned by Fred Lampropoulos, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate, which was No. 6 at $178,250. APX Alarm was No. 7 at $173,501, including giving $75,000 alone to Gov. Herbert, who helped cut the ribbon at the company's new Provo headquarters in 2009.

At No. 8 was Reagan Outdoor Advertising at $168,518.

Other friends of politicians • The LDS Church preaches against use of alcohol, tobacco and high-interest consumer debt, but politicians in heavily LDS Utah happily take those companies' money.

Payday lenders — which in Utah charge about 520 percent annual interest, or $20 for every $100 loaned for two-week "payday loans" — were No. 10 among big donor groups. They gave $148,800 and gave to Republicans by about a 3-1 margin.

They have blocked several bills in recent years that would have restricted their business — including a bill two years ago that would have capped loans in Utah at a still-high 100 percent annual interest. Utah has no caps on interest rates.

Beer companies gave $73,775 in the 2010 cycle, handing out roughly equal amounts to Democrats and Republicans. Tobacco companies gave $64,750, favoring Republicans by a 2-1 margin.

Beer and/or tobacco groups gave to 67 Utah politicians, including such high-profile officials as U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups and House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

Beer and tobacco money may have made its way to more politicians than are directly named in contribution reports, however. The groups gave to party political action committees that in turn could send along the money without having the tobacco or beer company name attached to it. For example, they gave $8,500 to the Utah Republican Party and $19,745 to the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

Big money • Of the $23.6 million in donations to Utah politics in the 2010 cycle, about $15 million (63 percent) went to Republicans; $6.6 million (27.8 percent) went to Democrats; and $2.1 million went to other parties, PACs and initiatives.

Politicians generally acknowledge that donors buy access with donations, but others say they may get more — at least influence, if not actual favors on occasion.

"You listen to people who donate to you. But is that bad?" Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, asked in an interview with The Tribune last year.

Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, which advocates for the poor and fights such things as payday lending, says big donors get preferential treatment.

"It allows them to make their case for a long time, often without a counterpoint," she said. "We try to play catch up. How? With three minutes in the hallway" catching lawmakers between meetings.

Kim Burningham, a former lawmaker who now heads Utahns for Ethical Government says, "Influence automatically happens when money is given. … If someone has given me $10,000 or $20,000 and they call and ask to talk, the response is obvious because you cannot say no. What they are buying is influence."

His group wants to ban corporate donations and limit other contributions to $2,500 each.

Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said big donors "certainly get access. And it's not just access, it's easier access. It's getting your phone call returned or taken quickly, and getting the meeting set up with ease."

After hearing the list of Utah's biggest donors, Monson said, "I think what most of them want is nothing — nothing in the sense of inaction." He said they want to "play defense, not offense," by stopping bills that could hurt them or their industries.

"You can only imagine the kinds of bills we have not seen because of donations by payday lenders or Realtors," Monson said. "You can't connect the dots, because there are no dots to connect." —

Find more donors online

A list of the top individual donors. > http://bit.ly/lBwgIC

A list of the top organizations contributing. > bit.ly/iO4NVA

 

 

 

 

 

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