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Salt Lake City attorneys take on Ogden activist's quest for Envision Ogden records

Published December 10, 2012 10:38 pm

GRAMA • Because case raises issues about state constitution, open records laws, an appeal is planned before Utah Supreme Court.
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The statute of limitations has expired on the Envision Ogden investigation that cast some of the city's 2007 political campaigns in a questionable light.

Nonetheless, citizen activist Dan Schroeder said he will take his related government-records battle all the way to Utah's Supreme Court to piece together the whole story on what occurred with Envision Ogden, an organization launched in early 2007 to boost business in Ogden.

"At this point, no one is going to be prosecuted. No one will be held accountable except in the eyes of public opinion," Schroeder said. "But it is important to get the facts out for anyone who wants to know."

Schroeder, a physics professor at Weber State University, unsuccessfully argued his government-records appeal case in 3rd District Court in October.

However, Jeff Hunt, David Reymann and LaShel Shaw — attorneys with Salt Lake City-based Parr Brown Gee and Loveless — recently took on Schroeder's case and plan to argue the appeal pro bono in the state's high court.

"The case raises some significant issues regarding the intersection between the Utah State Constitution and the Government Records Access and Management Act [GRAMA]," Hunt said of his reasons for hopping onboard.

In 2008, Hunt and Reymann, along with attorney Michael Hoppe, secured a landmark government-records victory with their handling of the Deseret News v. Salt Lake County case, which set a precedent regarding whether the public's interest outweighs the need for personal privacy.

In 2007, Envision Ogden — backed by the office of then-Mayor Matthew Godfrey — raised $87,000 from area businesses, including some that have internal policies barring political donations.

However, 2007 was a municipal election year, and by November, about $20,000 of Envision Ogden funds were funneled through an unregistered organization called Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate (FNURE), and those dollars helped fuel the City Council campaigns of candidates Blain Johnson and Royal Eccles.

In addition, Godfrey's successful 2007 re-election drive received funds directly from Envision Ogden, as did Jeremy Peterson's failed 2008 statehouse campaign for Democrat Neil Hansen's District 9 seat. Two years later, Peterson succeeded in ousting Hansen.

In March 2009, at Hansen's request, the state attorney general's office had Utah's Department of Public Safety conduct an investigation that raised several questions but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to file charges.

The attorney general's office reopened the probe in November 2010, only to close it again in March 2011 for similar reasons.

However, Schroeder is convinced that certain bank records would reveal who signed FNURE's donation checks to the Johnson and Eccles campaigns.

The State Records Committee approved release of some of the investigative documents, but both Schroeder and the attorney general's office appealed that ruling for opposing reasons — Schroeder sought the release of additional records and the attorney general's office wanted more withheld.

In October, 3rd District Judge Keith Kelly ruled that releasing bank records from an investigation that did not result in court proceedings would amount to an unreasonable search and seizure.

Hunt believes that the Utah Supreme Court should weigh in on the matter. He and other attorneys in the case have filed an intent to appeal, but the case hasn't yet been scheduled for arguments before the high court.

"Those [bank] accounts are closed and no longer active, and these donations were reported to the IRS," Hunt said, "so I don't really see a privacy issue here."

What he does see is the need for transparency during election campaigns.

"It's really the amounts, who was signing the checks, who was making the contributions and following the money trail that is important for the public's right to know," Hunt said.

It can take up to a year for a case to come before the state Supreme Court, and another three to six months for a decision to come down.

"The precedent is important to establish," Hunt said. "I think it will be worth the wait."


Twitter: @catmck




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