Walsh: EnergySolutions 'finally gone too far'

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Steve Creamer seemed to be running for something.

The soft-focus ads started running a few weeks ago: sepia-toned photos of 1950s St. George, a good 'ol boy from down south ruminating on the radioactive cloud from Nevada, a classic closing line about "the place I call home." It was the mushy stuff of a 30-second political profile.

Turns out the EnergySolutions president was campaigning for something much larger than elected office -- Utah's future.

Creamer's biopic disappeared a week ago, replaced by a new persuasive ad. The modest proposal for a cash-strapped state: In exchange for $1.5 billion to put computers in kindergarten, asphalt on roads and professors in classrooms, Utah would become the world's low-level nuclear dump.

It was a bribe offered between the weather and sports. It was slick. Easy-to-understand graphics. Simple message.

Utahns saw Creamer's quid pro quo for what it was.

But it seemed lost on lawmakers. After years of taking EnergySolutions' blood money, many legislators' barometers are broken.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wasn't fooled. "The price the state pays for being a dumping ground lasts forever," he said. "The recession will not."

Congressman Jim Matheson was "appalled."

But Republican legislative leaders still worked on Creamer's backroom deal, hoping to back the governor into a corner and reward a company that had been so kind to them through the years.

Since 2006, EnergySolutions has spent $500,000 on Utah politicians from both parties, $400,000 on congressional candidates and $1 million on lobbyists. The company was judicious, giving most generously to the people who could do their work on Capitol Hill: Then-Senate President John Valentine's haul was $20,000. House Speaker Greg Curtis got $10,000. The Conservative Caucus received $20,000. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee accepted $19,000. The Utah Republican Party took $154,000.

During the same period, the company worked on its image, dropping $700,000 on non-profit organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to the Nature Conservancy. In 2007, the EnergySolutions Foundation spent $80,000 marketing its good works. On the foundation's tax returns, the company continues to promise to hand out scholarships for worthy students.

Company spokeswoman Jill Sigal says EnergySolutions is simply exercising its constitutional rights.

"We think it's very important for everyone, whether it's a corporation or individual, to participate in the political process," she says.

The money was well-spent. A week ago, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn grimly handicapped EnergySolutions' chances of prevailing in federal court this week. And Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack was lined up to run the bill. Updated financial disclosure forms are due after the general session ends.

But the company, and legislative leaders, miscalculated. A federal stimulus package plugged the deepest holes in the state budget. The governor didn't look like a skinflint; he looked like a steely politician of conscience. Lawmakers looked cheap and easy.

And the backroom deal fell apart.

"The blatant buy-off was so offensive to people," says Vanessa Pierce, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. "They'd finally gone too far."

EnergySolutions still has not released the results of its public opinion poll from last weekend.

Some things, some people, can't be bought.

Rebecca Walsh is a columnist. Reach her at walsh@sltrib.com