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Paul Mero steps down as head of Sutherland Institute

Paul Mero is out as the head of the Sutherland Institute after being asked to step down by the conservative think tank's board. Mero had served as the institute's chief executive officer for 14 years.
Paul Mero is out as the head of the Sutherland Institute after being asked to step down by the conservative think tank's board. Mero had served as the institute's chief executive officer for 14 years.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Paul Mero, who had served as the Sutherland Institute's chief executive officer for 14 years, is out after being asked to step down by the conservative think tank's board.

"It is what it is. There were just disagreements between me and the board and the board chairman about the organization and about how we execute our plans in the future," Mero said.

Those disagreements surfaced earlier this year and were "insurmountable," he said, declining to be more specific. "There are lots of things I can't say legally publicly, as you can imagine."

Sutherland spokesman David Buer also said he couldn't provide details about the board's decision, effective Aug. 15. Stanford Swim, the chairman of the institute's board, will serve as acting CEO until a new president is selected.

"What we can say is it was over an extensive period of time that Paul and the board tried to resolve these differences," Buer said. "But in the end, the board didn't feel they could resolve those differences so the board took the action they did."

Both Mero and Buer said the differences were not over policy.

"It's not a change of direction. It's nothing philosophical. It's nothing fundamental," Mero said.

He said he does not expect the institute's initiatives to change, including helping to compensate the legal counsel hired by the state to defend Amendment 3.

Sutherland is paying Gene Schaerr, who left a partnership in Washington, D.C., to take the case, an undisclosed amount to produce papers on defending traditional marriage.

Schaerr agreed to cap his legal fees charged to the state at $200,000 through the appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The state has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Mero had offered to pay the state's legal costs for defending the voter-approved constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, as long as Sutherland approved the attorney selected and the legal strategy.

Buer said Sutherland's arrangement with Schaerr had nothing to do with Mero being let go.

"Nothing at all," he said, adding that Schaerr's "role at Sutherland will continue on."

Mero, he said, agreed to continue to serve on the executive committee for the ninth World Congress of Families that will be held in October 2015 in Salt Lake City but is no longer a member of the Sutherland board.

Swim said in a statement that Mero "has served faithfully and effectively as he has led Sutherland Institute from its infancy to becoming the most influential conservative voice in Utah."

He said that "while the board feels this change is necessary as we move into the future, we are grateful for his dedicated service." Swim said Sutherland will continue to be guided by principles "that allow faith, family and freedom to flourish in Utah."

State Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said Mero will be missed.

"I've always had a great deal of respect for him," Jenkins said, expressing surprise that Mero, a longtime presence at the Legislature, was being replaced. "His heart is in the right place, and he does good work."

Still, Jenkins said while it will take time to get used to a new boss at Sutherland, the organization likely won't lose influence at the Capitol.

"It's more the principles we agree with than the people there," he said.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who is stepping down to head the Utah State Tax Commission, called Mero "a stabilizing influence for many years, stabilizing in the sense of being the same face and the same message, year in and year out."

Valentine said he worked with Mero and Sutherland on a number of issues, including liquor regulation, tax policy and the defense of Amendment 3. Mero "helped us acquire general counsel Gene Schaerr," he said.

"So much of what happens in contact with lawmakers is based on personal relationships. You get to trust somebody by virtue of the fact you've worked with them," Valentine said.

In a 2004 Deseret News interview, Mero talked about turning over the staff and the boards of trustees and scholars at the institute in his first three years there and reaching out to better influence public policy on family and other issues.

Mero had previously worked 10 years with conservative members of Congress and was the founding executive vice president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois.

The institute was founded in 1995 by the late Gaylord Swim, a wealthy investment manager. It is named for Utahn George Sutherland, who as a U.S. Supreme Court justice fought government expansion in the 1930s.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan institute describes its mission as "to protect the cause of freedom, constructively influence Utah's decision-makers and promote responsible citizenship."

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