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SB54 fight within Utah GOP continues with effort to oust party chairman

FILE - Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, is photographed at the GOP office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 24, 2017.
FILE - Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, is photographed at the GOP office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 24, 2017.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson was reaching outMonday to the state's Republicans after he said party officials changed the rules to make it easier to oust him.

In a long post to the Utah Republican Party Facebook page, Anderson said the ramifications of the party's State Central Committee action last Saturday "will cause immeasurable detriment to the party going forward."

What he said was a vote to lower the threshold for the party's governing committee to remove a chairman from 60 percent of all 187 members to just 27 of them followed findings from an investigation into how Anderson handled a controversy.

It stemmed from an attempt last year by opponents of SB54, the 2014 law allowing candidates to bypass the party's traditional caucus and convention system, to bar some Republicans from gathering voter signatures to get on a primary ballot.

Anderson did not submit that bylaw to Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees state elections, saying it violated the party's constitution, Utah state law and potentially the U.S. Constitution.

In his Facebook post, Anderson said the effort "would have stripped the party membership of some (but not all) GOP candidates" and "was ostensibly designed to create a new legal standoff with the hope of launching another lawsuit."

The faction of the state party behind the legal battle over SB54 were handed a blow recently when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their challenge to losses in federal district court in Utah and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Anderson said when he served as a U.S. Air Force pilot, "I never followed, nor would have followed, an illegal order. I would not, and will not, do so now," saying that the party's "governing documents provide for the nullification of illegal language."

He asks in his post that Republicans "unite and elect leadership that will uphold the Rule of Law. The same Rule of Law that our party espouses. The choice is clear: unity and order versus anarchy and division."

A copy obtained by the Deseret News of a 40-page confidential report by a five-member investigative committee that apparently was discussed at Saturday's meeting, said the group found "ample justification to remove" the party chairman.

The justifications cited in the report are misrepresentation by altering a signed document, "abuse of authority and neglect of duty." However, the report recommended instead that Anderson be censured.

Among the reasons given for not removing him include that doing so could have a negative impact on the state and county delegate elections, and "could be viewed as an underhanded political move" this close to the party convention.

"The crux of the current situation appears to be that the chair has one political agenda, and the SCC members were elected with a different one," the report states, noting the public statements made about the friction weaken trust in the party.

The committee, according to the report, "needs to exercise its voice to better communicate its policies," and provides a statement about the lawsuit apparently written before the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The issue is "the right of our party, through our elected delegates, to determine who can claim to be a 'Republican' on the ballot," warning under current law, Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders "could come to Utah and gather enough careless signatures to get on the ballot as a Republican candidate."

Anderson said he now may seek a second term as party chairman.

"I was leaning not to do it," the party chairman told the Deseret News. "But (because of) this personal attack and the need to properly represent our Republican majority, I'm fired up."

Candidates for party chairman have until April 5 to declare if they're running to lead the Utah GOP over the next two years. The decision will be made at the party's annual convention in May.