clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Salt Lake Chamber scraps plan for pricey 'off-record' meeting with lawmakers

Advocates say 'shady' tax reform event raised concerns of backroom deals, financial influence

This Salt Lake Chamber flyer asks for a minimum $2,500 contribution to its new political action committee in order to attend an "off the record conversation on tax reform" with some of the most powerful members of the Utah Legislature tasked with proposin
This Salt Lake Chamber flyer asks for a minimum $2,500 contribution to its new political action committee in order to attend an "off the record conversation on tax reform" with some of the most powerful members of the Utah Legislature tasked with proposing new tax policy that would affect all Utahns. The PAC was formed on March 1.
Salt Lake Chamber

SALT LAKE CITY — It started with a flyer.

Then it quickly unraveled as the Deseret News began asking questions.

The flyer — sent to members of the Salt Lake Chamber — asked for a minimum payment of $2,500 to its new political action committee in order to attend an "off-the-record conversation on tax reform" with some of the most powerful members of the Utah Legislature tasked with proposing new tax policy that would affect all Utahns.

The exclusive Utah Business PAC event promised a private forum June 21 between businesses and Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, plus the co-chairmen of the newly formed Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson and Sen. Lyle Hillyard.

After being informed of the event, both conservative and left-leaning advocacy groups started raising concerns about transparency, perception of backroom dealing and worries about financial influence over the biggest discussion facing Utah legislators right now: tax reform.

Late Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Senate President Stuart Adams said Hillyard would now be withdrawing from the event — and Adams did not "wish to engage in nor condone meetings of this nature."

Soon after, the event was canceled.

The closed-door conversation would have been limited to 25 Salt Lake Chamber business members willing to pay the $2,500 contribution. The flyer said the PAC would contribute some of the money it raised to House and Senate leadership PACs.

"It's extremely shady," said Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, when he learned of the event.

Thomas told the Deseret News the event raised a number of issues, including concerns about the transparency regarding expected sweeping changes to Utah's tax structure.

It was similar concern over transparency that led legislative leaders to scrap a tax reform bill earlier this year amid complaints there was little time for the public to weigh in on the late-session legislation that was largely drafted behind closed doors.

"The public was concerned about backroom deals (during the legislative session)," Thomas said. "This could be another backroom deal happening."

There was also a question of whether the exclusive event would create an "unlevel playing field" over an issue that affects every Utahn, he said.

"It's almost using a public issue that's really concerning for most citizens to profit politically," Thomas said, adding that what "smells even worse" is that a contribution tied to the event would be made to House and Senate leadership PACs.

"That's extremely concerning," he said. "We have no idea what these lawmakers could be promising or saying to these business leaders. It could be anything."

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka also raised eyebrows at the exclusive event.

"All these conversations should be open to the public," Ruzicka said, noting the Utah Eagle Forum held an open event earlier this month where the governor and other legislative leaders promised a fresh start on tax reform.

"This tax discussion is huge. It affects families, it affects lives, it affects businesses," she said.

"I hope they don't use it for a fundraiser for the PAC," she said. "That's not the way this should work."

The issue echoes a similar situation the Deseret News uncovered in March when it obtained emails showing the Salt Lake Chamber was inviting businesses to join an "exclusive International/Inland Port Committee" in exchange for $10,000 — an elite membership fee. The invites raised conflict-of-interest questions because of Salt Lake Chamber CEO Derek Miller’s position as both the leader of the chamber and the chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority board.

Ultimately, Miller directed his staff to stop the invites.

When first asked about the private PAC event on Wednesday, Abby Osborn, Salt Lake Chamber vice president, initially defended it, questioning how it could appear "shady."

"Why?" she asked. "This happens all the time. People make contributions to PACs and leadership PACs and the governor — this happens all the time. That's what PACs do."

She also defended the Salt Lake Chamber and its PAC's prerogative to hold closed-door meetings with members — and to provide a forum to have an "off record" and "frank" discussion with legislative leaders.

"(Tax reform) is the biggest thing that is going on in the business community right now. It's certainly impactful," Osborn said. "It is off-the-record for our members to be able to speak candidly and freely without media presence or somebody from the general public they don't know in the room. They want to be able to have the ability to have that conversation."

Osborn also emphasized it was a "fundraiser for the PAC," not "a fundraiser for the event." She also noted under state law, PACs cannot accept contributions from non-chamber members. As for the contribution to House and Senate leadership PACs, Osborn said the PAC board would decide on the amount a few days before the event based on how much would have been raised.

The event quickly fell apart, however, after the Deseret News on Thursday asked Senate leadership about the flyer and Hillyard's promised attendance.

Shortly after, Aundrea Peterson, spokeswoman for the Utah Senate, issued a statement saying Hillyard had not known it was a PAC-sponsored event and "after learning additional details of this meeting" the tax task force co-chairman "will decline the invitation."

"In regard to this meeting, Sen. Hillyard was told by the chamber it was a meeting to hear concerns and feedback following the Salt Lake Chamber's meetings regarding tax policy," Peterson said. "Sen. Hillyard was not aware nor informed this meeting … would be in conjunction with the Utah Business PAC. And he was not aware nor informed a donation would be made to the House and Senate PACs.

"Contributions that come as a result of this meeting will not be accepted," Peterson added.

Additionally, she issued a statement on behalf of the Senate president, thanking the Deseret News for bringing the issue to light.

"President Adams appreciates the media bringing it to our attention," Peterson said. "Senators want to meet with engaged citizens, but certainly not under conditions or requirements of financial contributions. He does not wish to engage in nor condone meetings of this nature."

Told of the Senate's comments, Osborn later said the chamber and the PAC would not be proceeding with the event as planned. Instead, the event will now focus on a different topic, and the chamber will find a new forum to discuss tax reform.

"We will change directions," she said. "We don't want to put anyone in an uncomfortable situation — not legislators, not business leaders. We don't want this to come across as us trying to do anything here that's not on the up and up, and we will absolutely change directions. We will find other avenues for business leaders to speak about this important issue on tax reform."

The flyer's wording was "totally misperceived," Osborn said. "We'll own that as the chamber. … It was never our intention to fundraise off of an event like this."

The House speaker wasn't available for comment Thursday because he was attending a Scout camp, but before the event was canceled, Wilson's spokesman Matt Lusty issued a statement saying Wilson would be attending the event — along with many others — "in an effort to better educate and explain the issue to those who will listen."

Later, after being told that the event had been scrapped, Lusty said the event was "never portrayed to us (as) anything other than the opportunity" to discuss tax reform and "there was never any discussion about fundraising."

"Now that it's canceled, we're going to continue talking with other groups, obviously as many people as possible in a way that's appropriate," Lusty said. "We're not going to engage in events where it creates an unfair opportunity or an opportunity that could be perceived as unfair."