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Rep. Patrice Arent will sponsor a bill in the upcoming legislative session to close a loophole that lets candidates for county office use their campaign funds any way they see fit — including, in the past, buying a personal vehicle.

"This is an important issue to ensure the public trust, so that money donated is spent exactly how you would expect it to be used," Arent, D-Millcreek, said. "The state regulates the majority of campaign-finance laws, all the way down to municipal elections. Somehow this personal-use exemption for county officials was overlooked."

It wasn't exactly overlooked.

The lieutenant governor's office sought a bill during the 2013 session banning personal use of campaign funds by city or county candidates and there were hearings on the bill over the previous summer, where it garnered support. But it was voted down in the House, 29-45, as opponents objected to the Legislature mandating how cities and counties regulate election funds.

Last session, the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting candidates for city offices from using their campaign funds for personal expenses or purchases, but lawmakers did not include counties in the ban.

The Tribune reported this week that the loophole may benefit San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, in his effort to raise money for his legal defense on convictions for leading an illegal protest ride through a sensitive Southern Utah canyon.

Lyman, who is awaiting sentencing on two misdemeanors, had sought $100,000 in taxpayer assistance for his defense, but the state Constitutional Defense Council rejected the request. Instead, private individuals and elected officials have stepped in to contribute funds, most notably Gov. Gary Herbert, who pledged $10,000 from his political action committee to aid Lyman.

Under the law, Herbert can transfer the money from the PAC to Lyman's campaign account and there would be no restrictions on how Lyman could use the funds.

State elections director Mark Thomas said the county loophole was brought to the office's attention several years ago when a candidate for county office was accused of using campaign funds to buy a new personal vehicle.

The county attorney investigated, Thomas said, only to find there was nothing the candidate could be charged with because there was no state law or county ordinance prohibiting the personal use of campaign funds at the county level.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke