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On its face, it appears to be a straightforward spat between the University of Utah and a donor, but it may just be the opening shot in a campaign about the very nature of Utah politics.

Kirk Jowers, the director of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, is working on an initiative campaign to alter the way the two major parties select their candidates. He wants to create a path in which political hopefuls could sidestep the traditional conventions and go directly to a primary election.

It's a move strongly opposed by the state's tea party activists, who/ argue that direct access to a primary would allow establishment Republicans with deep pockets to crush their movement and reclaim control of the state party.

To fight Jowers and his idea, they are seizing on a letter sent Friday by Peter Valcarce to university leaders.

In that letter, Valcarce, who runs a Republican campaign mail firm, accuses Jowers of inappropriately diverting part of his donation into a scholarship fund named for Jowers and his wife.

"I don't know how his action in this matter would be described in academia, but in the private sector it would be called theft," Valcarce wrote.

Valcarce denies that his letter is in any way connected to the fight over Utah's caucus system, and he says he has only scant tea party ties, but activists are spreading his letter through social media and blogs, questioning Jowers' integrity and calling for an investigation.

Jacqueline Smith, a tea party organizer, says there is widespread "distrust" of Jowers because of his view on caucuses and his past flirtation with a run for governor, and Valcarce's accusations only feed into that.

"It is definitely something that doesn't look good," she said.

The U.'s administrators did not return calls for comment, though Jowers said he and the U. handled the donation appropriately and will use the money the way Valcarce wants.

That said, he isn't taking Valcarce's shots without returning some of his own, starting with the reason behind Valcarce's generosity.

"He needed to get rid of the money," Jowers said. "He approached me in November 2007 because his foundation had been found fraudulent by the IRS."

The Internal Revenue Service did audit the Valcarce Foundation and found that from 2001 to 2006 the nonprofit primarily loaned its money to Valcarce, which he paid back sporadically. In 2006, the foundation had $711,000 in assets and it had loaned exactly $711,000 to Valcarce. It gave no money to charity.

The IRS stripped the foundation of its nonprofit status, and Valcarce says he had to contribute that money within the tax year. That's why he anonymously contributed $200,000 to the U. and an undisclosed amount to Brigham Young University, his alma mater, in December 2008.

A couple of weeks later, Valcarce received a thank you letter, which said $125,000 went to the Hinckley Institute and $75,000 to the "Kirk and Kristen Jowers International Scholarship Fund."

Valcarce says that's the first he heard of Jowers' fund. He didn't like it. He called Kirk Jowers to request that his full $200,000 go to create a fund honoring Rep. Rob Bishop, who was Valcarce's high school debate teacher and is an alumnus of the Hinckley Institute.

Then last fall, Eric Wright, a Hinckley intern working in Washington, D.C., accidentally fell off of an apartment building and died. Jowers and Wright's family wanted to create a scholarship in his honor and announced that the first $25,000 would be matched dollar for dollar from the Jowers Fund.

Valcarce wondered if that money came from his donation. He contacted the U. in September 2010. He was told the Bishop Fund had been created with $125,000 from his donation, but the $75,000 never was transferred out of the Jowers Fund.

After a more heated exchange, Jowers transferred $40,000 to the Bishop Fund and promised to send over the remaining $35,000 when it became available, which would take some years.

"Not one penny of his donation has been or will be spent by the Jowers Scholarship Fund," said Jowers, who added he did talk to Valcarce about donating to his fund and is surprised it became an issue.

The two haven't talked since last October.

Valcarce said he had been meaning to go public with his complaint for some time and decided that Friday he would stop procrastinating and send the letter to U. leaders, state lawmakers and eventually to tea party activists.

He said he had two motivations: to take on Jowers and to warn other donors.

"I think Kirk Jowers is a man obsessed by his own image, and he'll do anything he can to be a Utah political celebrity," said Valcarce. "He has relied on my donation to fund his scholarship. I want other people out there considering to give to the Hinckley Institute to know that."

Jowers says Valcarce's motivations stem far beyond his concern for potential donors.

"Peter seemed to want something from the donation, specifically, I think he wanted me to help him get business for his company through my D.C. law clients," said Jowers, who is a partner with Caplin & Drysdale. "That kind of led to a worsening of the relationship."

Valcarce calls that "laughable," pointing out that he has worked for the Republican National Committee and the George W. Bush presidential campaign, among other national GOP efforts.

The two also found themselves on opposing sides of a state House race. Jowers' wife volunteered for state Rep. Becky Edwards, while Valcarce worked with challenger DJ Schanz, who argued that Edwards wasn't a true Republican.

But more than anything, Jowers questions the timing. Valcarce's letter went public just as Jowers and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt are organizing a group to support a possible ballot initiative that would create an alternative to the convention system. Their plan would allow candidates who collect a certain number of signatures to reach a primary election, said Rich McKeown, who works with Leavitt and is part of the discussions.

The way it works now is if a candidate can get 60 percent of the convention vote, he or she automatically wins the party's nomination. If no one can reach that threshold, the top two face off in a primary. Both Republicans and Democrats in Utah follow this model.

Leavitt and Jowers think their proposal would increase the number of competitive primary elections and boost the state's voter turnout, which is the lowest in the nation.

Valcarce says he didn't know about this plan when he sent the letter and he hasn't attended a convention in a decade. He said his motivation was not political, even if that's his business.

"I'm a political professional, but I'm not a political activist," he said. "I have no stake in the political climate of Utah right now." Twitter: @mattcanham