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Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi's supporters may have inadvertently provided his political opponents with some campaign ammunition.

They appear to have also reinforced the view among opponents of a shopping center expansion in the Union community that Horiuchi has a "cozy relationship" with the shopping center developer.Through an apparent technological misstep, the alleged "smoking gun" turned up on the voice mail of Susan Hale, a campaigner for Republican rival Pearl Meibos.

In the recording, Hermes Associates executive Rees Jensen tells county official and active Horiuchi supporter Mike Reberg that Horiuchi and his assistant, Blaze Wharton, were "desirous" of him supporting Republican Gene Whitmore in the primary election.

Whitmore's opponent, Pearl Meibos, has been fighting the developer's project and aggressively attacking Horiuchi. Though Horiuchi has publicly stated that he considers Whitmore the more formidable opponent, some of his supporters have privately conceded that Meibos poses the greater threat.

Meibos said the recording demonstrates not only that Horiuchi "is more afraid of me than Gene," but also that "he is attempting to manipulate the political process by using his connections to influence the outcome of the Republican primary."

In the taped conversation, Jensen explains that he learned from Hale's voice mail introduction that a citizens group had shifted its fund-raising emphasis from opposing the shopping center project to "dumping Horiuchi," which Jensen calls "inappropriate."

(Jensen apparently linked the telephone call to Hale's line to play the message to Reberg and then failed to disengage the system, leaving the ensuing conversation on Hale's voice mail recording.)

Jensen cautions against overreacting to the Union group's political activity, which could "give her (Meibos) an unintended boost by being high profile with her."

He goes on to say that he had discussed the subject with Horiuchi and Wharton, "and they, of course, are desirous to see us be supportive of Whitmore in the primary to accomplish that objective there."

Horiuchi "categorically denies" that he and Wharton asked Jensen to back Whitmore.

"There was a time when he (the developer) basically asked me if I had a problem with him supporting Whitmore, and I said he could do whatever he wanted," Horiuchi said.

Jensen's recollection of the conversation is the same as Horiuchi's. He said, "The commissioner did not ask me to do anything. I initiated the meeting simply to indicate that we had been approached by people suggesting we support Gene Whitmore but, frankly, I did not wish to alienate Commissioner Horiuchi."

With Meibos' constant attacks against his firm, Jensen said it should come as no surprise that he would support her opponent.

Jensen said it is also no surprise that the Union group would use the taped conversation for political purposes. "They must be thrilled to death to have it."

He said their use of it "is an egregious example of the kind of misrepresentation and the kind of hateful negative assault they continue to make on the project and on us."

Horiuchi said he believes Whitmore would be tougher to beat than Meibos, "who is an intensely one-issue candidate." Whitmore fits the profile of a "conservative, clean-cut, competent guy," while Meibos "makes me look normal," he said.

But Meibos says the tape and statements she's received from Democrats and county workers contradict Horiuchi's assertions.

"If he thinks I'm easier to beat, why isn't he asking developers to support me instead of Whitmore? Why is he asking his supporters to vote on the Republican ticket for Whitmore? He clearly wants to see the weakest candidate win," Meibos said.

Meibos and Hale also said the tape offers a rare glimpse into Horiuchi's relationship with developers. In the conversation, Jensen advises Reberg on how to conduct a hearing that day on a petition to vacate a road. "I don't want any stuttering on the road vacation," he said, adding, "I would be happy if the whole thing took five minutes."

Meibos said, "The tapes proves what we've said has been happening in the process all long: That it's being handled in the back room."

Horiuchi rejects the assertion, saying the hearing that was being discussed on the tape was simply a rehearing on an issue that had already been aired.

And as for Meibos' claim that he is "cozy with developers," Horiuchi retorts that Meibos' major financial backer, Tom Lloyd, is also a land developer. Lloyd, who has had competing interests with the Union shopping center developer, has contributed about $25,000 to Meibos.

Horiuchi said Hermes Associates officials, meanwhile, have contributed about $200 to his campaign.

Meibos said Lloyd is her campaign manager and that the $25,000 contribution is a loan. "I will pay it back if I can," she said, adding, "There are absolutely no strings attached to it. I will not be beholding to anyone."

Jensen said Meibos and the Union group have used "every tool at their disposal" to stop the shopping center expansion, including "scurrilous attacks" and threats against retail tenants.

"We have been through the ringer more than any project in the history of Salt Lake County," Jensen said. "Never has there been such an extensive, protracted approval process."