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In a rollicking political battle over whether to better collect sales tax owed for online purchases, some hard-slugging tactics by conservatives against fellow conservatives may have crossed legal lines.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) filed a complaint with the Utah attorney general's office this week but later said it planned to withdraw it after receiving an apology contending Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, broke the law in an attack robocall by showing a false source number on recipients' caller IDs.
The number displayed was the personal cellphone of Evelyn Everton, Utah director for AFP, which the call lambasted as "an out-of-state special interest group" fighting collection of online sales tax needed "to pay for roads, playgrounds and other critical needs." It urged protest calls to AFP officials at their personal cellphone numbers.
That robocall followed an earlier AFP mailer in Winder's district urging voters to call him on his cellphone to tell him to oppose internet sales tax legislation, and perhaps suggesting that he wants to throw away taxpayer money.
"It appears that Mr. Winder used Utah Values PAC [controlled by him and his sister, Republican Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton] to retaliate against me" and AFP official Heather Williamson, whose phone number was also used, Everton wrote in her complaint. The robocall said it was paid for by that PAC.
"His actions publicly disseminated my personal phone number, subjecting me to harassment," Everton's complaint stated. "Mr. Winder showed an intent to harm me by falsely connecting me to the message he conveyed."
Her complaint noted AFP's mailer listed Winder's cellphone because it is the contact he uses on the Legislature's webpage. She complained her cellphone is private and he illegally had it falsely displayed as the source of the call and he did not use public business contact numbers for her.
On Friday, Everton emailed The Salt Lake Tribune saying, "Rep. Winder agreed to a public apology and we agreed to retract our complaint."
Winder then told the newspaper, "I was taken aback by the mail piece, and in a knee-jerk reaction sent some calls I shouldn't have. I appreciate Evelyn and her team and look forward to a better working relationship going forward."
When Winder was West Valley City's mayor, he admitted concocting a false identity to write positive stories about his city that appeared in the Deseret News under the pen name of Richard Burwash.
Winder is not the only legislator crossing swords with AFP, a well-heeled national group that helped transform the tea party movement into a political force with money from conservative philanthropist brothers David and Charles Koch.
Everton said AFP sent mailers, nearly identical to the one used against Winder, to about 500 households in each of 12 House districts during the legislative session. She said it was part of AFP's mission to "educate Utahns about the votes their legislators are taking."
The group has fought efforts by Gov. Gary Herbert and others seeking to better collect taxes already legally owed by Utahns for online purchases, but often not voluntarily submitted. Herbert estimates that it costs the state $200 million in lost revenue a year.
Everton has said such legislation which failed to pass this year is akin to imposing a new "internet tax" and amount to taxation without representation by trying to force out-of-state companies to be Utah's tax collectors.
One lawmaker upset by an AFP mailer targeting him is Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville. He sent a lengthy email to House colleagues this week with a picture of it and complained about what it implied.
"The piece strikes me as misleading (at best) and likely unethical," he said. "The message is calculated to cast me in a bad light without directly accusing me of anything."
For example, he said, a large headline says, "Some lawmakers in Utah want to throw away our hard-earned tax dollars with the internet sales tax" and has his picture next to it, suggesting he is among those trying to waste their money.
Hawkes said AFP Utah used a similar mailer targeting then-Rep. Sophia DiCaro, R-West Valley City, last year.
"She lost her re-election bid by just a few hundred votes," he said, adding that "demonstrates that the potential costs associated with these type of drive-bys are real."
Hawkes added, "I wouldn't trust AFP Utah if I were you because, at the first sign of a good-faith policy disagreement or even simple indecision they may send fliers like this into your district, hoping to bully you into agreeing with them in every particular."