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A national media watchdog group has sued the Utah attorney general's office in state court, alleging the state's top law enforcement agency is hiding information about its dealings with what the group calls politically conservative "cash-for influence" organizations.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed the suit Monday in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court after Attorney General Sean Reyes' office refused to comply with public records requests for email communications and documents that would detail the relationship between Reyes, the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF).
Court papers say the Wisconsin-based CMD, a nonprofit, sought records from Reyes' office in March and was provided with 19 documents. Other documents 13 records that CMD said it already knew of were not released, the lawsuit states, although no basis for withholding them was cited, in violation of Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.
On appeal, the attorney general's office argued that the documents contained "political/campaign activities that were not conducted within this office," and so, not subject to GRAMA.
"Attorney General Reyes' dealings with RAGA and RLDF, including events he and his staff have attended in their official capacities, involve important matters of public policy and the conduct of the public's business," Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Allowing Reyes to continue to withhold the documents denies the public its right to access information directly related to matters of public policy, the lawsuit contends.
Reyes' chief of staff, Missy Larsen, asked for a comment, responded: "While we disagree with politically motivated lawsuits and press releases, it is our policy not to comment on open cases."
CMD made similar requests for information about RAGA's relationships with Republican attorneys general in other states, Pearson said. Reyes' office was queried in part because Utah's attorney general is a member of RAGA's executive committee and plays a significant role in the organization.
A check of Utah campaign finance records also shows that since 2014, RAGA has contributed $235,000 to Reyes' campaigns making the group his largest contributor by far.
Utah media outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, have had their own public-records battles with Reyes' office since he was appointed to the attorney general's post in 2013 (he was elected later). In 2016, the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave the office its Black Hole Award, which annually recognizes agencies or individuals that resist transparency under state public information laws.
"Those of us who work with government transparency have been very disappointed in the way Reyes' office has dealt with those issues," said David Reymann, a Salt Lake City media lawyer who is also CMD's local counsel. "Particularly, when he ran a campaign that was promising to change things. Failure of transparency is not the way to restore public trust."
Among the documentation CMD knew of and sought were copies of communications about a 2015 RLDF-coordinated amicus brief related to a California wildfire; an RLDF drafted letter signed by Reyes denouncing climate fraud investigations and an RLDF-coordinated letter, also signed by Reyes, that supported the nomination of Scott Pruitt former Republican attorney general of Oklahoma for the top post at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
CMD also sought information about Reyes' attendance at the RAGA's national meetings in 2015, 2016 and 2017, including a 2016 "ski summit" that promised "private meeting times with AG Reyes," court papers say. Additionally, the group sought information about the attendance of some attorneys general's office staff at those meetings, including Larsen, the chief of staff, along with former solicitor general Parker Douglas and Reyes' campaign manager, Alan Crooks.
The lawsuit asks a state judge to declare that all the records sought by CMD are public and to order their immediate release. Additionally, the suit requests the judge to order the attorney general's office to describe the contents of the records that have been withheld and submit them to the court for review.
RAGA and the RLDF are considered "cash-for-influence" organizations, the lawsuit states, because they work to coordinate actions by Republican attorneys general on behalf of corporations, including those from the financial, energy, pharmaceutical and telecom industries. CMD says RAGA allows member companies to pay a premium of up to $125,000 for the privilege of holding private briefings with A.G.s and their staffs.