Bennett says Shurtleff may have broken election law

Senate race » The Shurtleff campaign calls the accusation an 'attack to distract.'
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In two weeks, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff will host his 6th Annual Wasatch Shotgun Blast, consistently one of his largest and most popular fundraisers.

This year, as he campaigns against Bob Bennett for the U.S. Senate, Shurtleff has done something different, melding his federal campaign account with a state political action committee.

It will allow Shurtleff to accept huge checks from corporations and other supporters, regardless of federal campaign finance limits, and steer excess money to his state PAC.

But Bennett is questioning if he's using Utah's Wild West campaign finance rules -- there are no restrictions on who can contribute and how much they can give -- to skirt federal law.

"It appears that there has been commingling, and if there has been it's illegal," Bennett told The Associated Press .

Shurtleff campaign spokesman Jason Powers said the Bennett accusation was a sign of desperation.

"This is an attack to distract attention from his record of supporting the Wall Street bailouts for billions of dollars and his record of trying to nationalize health insurance," Powers said.

Bennett can raise questions, he added, but the joint fundraising committee Shurtleff has set up is allowed by federal law and reviewed by the campaign's attorney, former FEC Chairman Scott Thomas.

Shurtleff has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in his PAC for Utah's Future this year, with huge donations from frequent backers of the attorney general, including companies like The Tax Club, Dreamworks Mortgage, MSL Holdings and Infusion Media, all of which gave $25,000 or more.

More than half of that money raised by the PAC has been channeled to the account he used for his 2008 attorney general race.

"The fundamental question is: He's announced that he's not running for re-election as attorney general, but he's still raising money for his race for attorney general," Bennett said. "What is he going to do with that money?"

Under state law, Shurtleff doesn't have to disclose how he uses the money in his attorney general account until the end of the year, but Powers said it went to pay off expenses left over from that campaign.

His disclosure for the PAC For Utah's Future shows that Shurtleff used the account to buy tables at county Republican Party fundraisers, charitable contributions to the Utah Food Bank and for political consulting that Powers said was limited to fundraising for the PAC.

Throughout his tenure as attorney general, Shurtleff has attracted huge donations, often in excess of $10,000, from well-heeled backers.

Under the joint fundraising arrangement for the shotgun fundraiser, Shurtleff could still take those $10,000 donations from individuals and allocate up to $7,200 to his federal account -- the maximum allowed for the convention, primary and general election cycles combined -- and the rest would go to the state PAC. All corporate contributions would have to go to the state PAC because company cash is banned in federal campaigns.

Joint fundraising accounts are becoming more and more common.

When President George W. Bush came to Utah last year to raise money for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid, the McCain campaign set up a similar joint fundraising committee. Checks for up to $70,000 were split between the official McCain campaign funds, the national party and state parties in several key swing states.

But, unlike Shurtleff's campaign, all of those were federal accounts, subject to federal restrictions.

Guidelines from the Federal Election Commission allow joint fundraising between federal and state accounts, as long as none of the money in the state account is used for the federal campaign.

Shurtleff's invitation to the shotgun blast says that the money donated to the state PAC will be used for "non-election purposes, such as occasional charitable donations, or other purposes permitted by law."

Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.