Monday, April 28, 2008

AG Shurtleff says it's not his resonsibility to enforce the law

State passes buck on corporations that break laws
By Sheena McFarland
The Salt Lake Tribune

Posted: 8:51 PM- Attorney General Mark Shurtleff last year received nearly $1.4 million in campaign contributions.

While the state's top attorney dutifully reported those donations, about 20 corporations giving more than one of every 10 dollars of that money - $147,910 - failed to file the required disclosures.

Violation of the disclosure law is a class B misdemeanor, which can carry a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

But while Shurtleff is in charge of enforcing that law, he says it is up to the Lieutenant Governor's Office to notify him of any wrongdoing.

"There's no way for me to know if a corporation has filed other than the Lieutenant Governor notices if there's a problem," Shurtleff said. "I know what my rules are as an elected official, like when I need to file, but I don't know that for corporations. That's not my responsibility."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., whose political action committee last year reported receiving $254,985 from about 60 companies that have no corresponding disclosures on file, has a similar take.

"Obviously the candidates need to do all that they need to do as well, but it's tough to tie together that candidates are responsible for their own filing and corporations' filings," said Lisa Roskelley, the governor's spokeswoman. "The candidates need to be responsible."

Joe Demma, chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, says a lax attitude pervades the reporting system for political action committees and corporations.

"If they don't file, it's expected they get a slap on wrist and a 'Hey, do better next time,' " Demma said. "We don't necessarily agree or disagree, but it's clearly an issue that needs to be addressed."

But Demma says the staff he oversees is too overloaded to pursue each infringement.

"We only have so many eyes. We can only look so hard. But we absolutely go after it. If we don't know about it, amongst all the other things we're doing, it takes a little time to get to," Demma said. "I'd say for every one that we don't catch, there are five that we do."

But others say the financial disclosure law enforcement is too weak.

"We do have disclosures, but there are very few penalties attached to anyone who does not abide by any regulations," said Cassie Dippo, past legislative chairwoman of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

Demma argues that the fact that the candidates have disclosed the contributions provides the transparency the law is trying to provide, but Dippo said that "both parties disclosing is a checks and balance. I don't think that because you're a corporation you're exempt from Utah laws."

Thom Roberts, the assistant attorney general who handles individual reporting cases, says the law "raises the joke about putting corporations in jail."

But he said that when he or the Lieutenant Governor's Office hears of corporations not disclosing, they contact them and make sure the proper paperwork is filed.

Shurtleff says the donations already are disclosed by candidates, "so it's double disclosure, but [corporations] still need to disclose."

Sandy Peck, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said voters would like to know which corporations make donations.

"It really makes it hard for voters to find out what's happening with corporations, and it's especially important that corporations report since there are no limits to how much they can give," Peck said. "Usually everyone says, 'We need disclosure.' That's the first step, but if they're going to make it that difficult to find, it's not too helpful for us."

Frank Pignanelli, who lobbies for several corporations, including the Woodbury Group, which didn't file in 2007, said he wishes there was more information given to corporations making donations.

"Usually people just assume, 'I'll make a contribution, but it's up to the candidates to file.' But you have businesses that are new to the political arena," Pignanelli said.

The Woodbury Group now has filed its proper paperwork.

But not all businesses who fail to report their contributions are new to the game. Sinclair Oil donates thousands of dollars to candidates each year, but neglected to file a $15,000 in-kind donation for letting Huntsman use the Sinclair-owned Grand America Hotel.

"It was an internal accounting mistake," said Clint Ensign, senior vice president of the Sinclair Companies. "We watch very closely our cash contributions, but we just made a mistake with the in-kind donation."

He immediately filed an amended report disclosing the contribution.

But Demma says it's "incumbent upon corporations to know what they're doing."

He said the vast majority of corporations who have questions call the Lieutenant Governor's Office and get the information they need to file properly.

"For a corporation to say 'I had no idea,' that's just ludicrous. But for us to notify each corporation - that would be every corporation essentially in the world needing notification - to say, 'Here's what you have to do,' " Demma says. "It would be a financial nightmare for our office."

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