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Art Raymond, the spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, was placed on paid leave Thursday while the city investigates online comments criticizing Becker's campaign rivals Raymond posted anonymously on Salt Lake Tribune stories.
Raymond, 49, acknowledged writing the comments under the pseudonym WhiskeyPete from his city office on the desktop computer assigned to him. He said he wrote the comments in a personal capacity, and that no one working for Becker's re-election campaign, or any of his fellow city employees, asked him to write the comments or knew he was composing them.
"Certainly it's the case that I have engaged my personal avatar, my personal commenting thread, while I work, but only on my break or lunch," Raymond said in an interview with The Tribune on Thursday.
Raymond said he has no designated break or lunch periods.
"Those happen as time warrants," he said.
After that interview, David Everitt, chief of staff for Becker, said Raymond would be placed on administrative leave so the city can investigate whether Raymond violated a state law and a city policy.
"We're going to place him on admin leave and take a look at this out of an abundance of caution," Everitt said.
State law prohibits "an expenditure from public funds for political purposes" and defines "political purposes" as "an act done with the intent or in a way to influence or tend to influence, directly or indirectly, any person to refrain from voting or to vote for or against any candidate or a person seeking a municipal or county office."
Salt Lake City is the only municipality in Salt Lake County to have a mayoral election this year and Becker, who is seeking a third term, has attracted four challengers. The two top vote-getters will emerge from the Aug. 11 primary, which is being conducted by mail-in ballots.
Salt Lake City's own policies say: "... except for de minimus use, employee use of City electronic communication technology not directly related to City business is prohibited."
Raymond pointed to that policy Thursday, even quoting the Latin, and maintained he followed it. He said no one from the city has given him further guidance on how that policy is to be interpreted.
"I think that I retain my right as guaranteed under the First Amendment to have a personal opinion about what goes on in the city I live in and the elected officials that oversee our city," Raymond said.
He added that he has worked hard to distinguish between his city job speaking to reporters on behalf of the mayor and sharing his personal views.
"I believe I've maintained that distinction appropriately," Raymond said.
Flagged • The Tribune's Web staff discovered Raymond's alias July 23 after a reader flagged one of WhiskeyPete's posts as objectionable. The Tribune employee let the post remain, but noticed the email address WhiskeyPete had used to register included Raymond's full name.
A search of WhiskeyPete's posts showed many of them came from an Internet Protocol address registered to Salt Lake City government. Tribune staff identified six posts on five articles where Raymond supported Becker or disparaged his campaign opponents, and in which the posts were sent during business hours from a city IP address.
One of Raymond's posts targeted former Utah Democratic chairman and state Sen. Jim Dabakis when in the spring he declared himself a candidate for mayor before jumping out a few days later.
"Fun guy to have at a party, but voters should check out his record (or lack of) in the realm of public service," Raymond wrote in part at 9:58 a.m. on April 6, according to the time stamp. "Led state Dems into their worst electoral showing in decades, has achieved next to nothing as a state Senator (check the numbers on Utah Data Points site) and has hilariously taken credit for the work of others on numerous occasions."
Raymond was supportive of Becker in two posts written June 15 on an article promoting The Tribune's daily online video chat, Trib Talk. That day's guest was Chris Burbank, whom Becker had forced to resign four days earlier as police chief over concerns about how Burbank handled an investigation into sexual harassment complaints against former Deputy Chief Rick Findlay.
'Shenanigans' • "While this reporter continues to shore-up the Trib's mayoral endorsement through his laughably skewed reporting," Raymond wrote in part on at 9:33 a.m. on July 21, "Utah Policy is eating the Trib's lunch on ACTUAL issues, not the least of which is Biskupski's clear pattern of campaign shenanigans and ethically dubious workarounds."
UtahPolicy.com is an online news site focusing on politics. Raymond said he thought he had commented on stories on that site as well. Both The Tribune and UtahPolicy allow reader comments through a third-party interface called Disqus, which allows commenters to use one login to post on any site that uses Disqus.
On the Web page for Wednesday's Trib Talk with City Council Chairman Luke Garrott, Raymond also complained about that Becker campaign rival.
Garrott on Thursday said he was not surprised at Raymond's online comments, and said Raymond should be disciplined for what he described as using public resources for electioneering.
"Being inside City Hall I am aware of the climate there and I've joked in the past it seems like it's turning into the Nixon administration," Garrott said.
Matt Lyon, spokesman for Becker's campaign, on Thursday said the campaign had no knowledge of Raymond's posts.
"We've been running a campaign talking about Ralph's success and merits to be re-elected," Lyon wrote in an email. "Although I understand that oftentimes people close to candidates get frustrated by political spin and misuse of facts, the campaign certainly does not condone or support this type of behavior."
Tim Chambless, a University of Utah political scientist affiliated with the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said neither the courts nor lawmakers have interpreted whether the state law would prohibit a public employee from using a government computer to write online campaign-related commentary.
"This is all unclear, untested legal ground," Chambless said.
Whether the case involves a legal violation, it does raise questions of ethics, said Bob Steele, a journalism ethics scholar with the Poynter Institute.
Steele, who was contacted by The Tribune to provide input and guidance in covering this issue, said, "If he is hiding behind a shield and doing this kind of chicanery, if you will, campaign chicanery, I think that's an ethical issue for the voters to be aware of and to decide."