July 24, 2024

More travel, luxury resorts and another hog-hunting trip

More travel, luxury resorts and another hog-hunting trip

Outgoing Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes continued a pattern of lavish travel and high-dollar events last year, using campaign funds for dozens of airline tickets, booking stays in a slew of hotels and paying for several outdoor adventures — including another trip to shoot feral hogs from helicopters in Texas.

The beleaguered Republican, who announced last month that he would not seek reelection, spent a total of $426,338 from campaign coffers in 2023 with at least $173,577 of that going to travel and hotels — for lodging and event space — according to his latest campaign finance disclosure filed Wednesday.

The report mirrors the travel-heavy itinerary funded by donors that he kept up in the two years since the start of his current term in 2021, which saw him take at least 30 campaign-funded trips to Europe, Mexico and across the United States.

The campaign paid for multiple six-figure events last year at luxury destinations in Deer Valley and elsewhere, totaling $106,642. Many of those are listed as fundraisers. It also paid for several luxury adventure bookings, snowmobiling, big-game hunting forays and a March limousine ride worth $1,250.

Reyes, as he did in 2022, also bought seats on a helicopter hunting trip in Texas to shoot animals from the sky, this time with Brazos River Helicopters, a company based in Haskell, Texas. That May trip, records show, cost at least $4,209.

As part of a state depredation program, the west Texas helicopter company offers airborne shooting of feral hogs and coyotes, as well as cattle herding, wildlife capture, photography and surveying, according to its website.

His report included $6,000 paid to a company listed as “Hill Outfitters” in May; another $1,647 the same month to Red Pine Adventures, which does horseback riding and snowmobile trips in Park City; and $2,422 in June to the Avventure Collective, which does outdoor skiing, rafting and other excursions in several states and countries.

Reyes’ chief campaign consultant, Alan Crooks, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the latest filings.

In November, Crooks defended Reyes’ donor-funded travel, saying it did not reflect any diversion of attention by Utah’s top law enforcement officer from his duties and responsibilities in the Beehive State.

Crooks, whose Salt Lake City-based Comprehensive Strategic Solutions was paid $68,870 by Reyes last year, also called the attorney general’s extensive travel “good for Utah” for magnifying Reyes’ ability “to get things done.”

Since the start of 2020, Crooks’ firm has been paid $537,994 by Reyes.

The campaign shelled out to three companies a total of $160,518 on consulting, accounting and support services in 2023, reports indicate, and nearly $998,500 from early 2020 to the end of last year.

How the uproar began

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, left, and Tim Ballard shown in 2016.

Weighed down in recent months with scandals involving his friend Tim Ballard, luxury campaign travel and his nonprofit’s practices, Reyes announced in early December he would not seek reelection this year.

He was appointed attorney general in 2013 on the heels of alleged misconduct that saw his two predecessors charged with, but never convicted of, multiple felonies. Reyes is now the third consecutive Utah attorney general to leave office under a cloud.

As recently as September, Reyes vowed he would seek another term as Utah’s top law enforcement officer and offered his support to Ballard, founder of the anti-child-trafficking nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad and the focal point of the blockbuster movie “Sound of Freedom.”

Ballard has since been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, leading to his ouster from OUR, a series of lawsuits and at least two criminal investigations.

The Utah Legislature in November launched a sweeping audit of Reyes’ office, including his relationship with Ballard. Reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune also highlighted dozens of campaign-funded trips over the span of three years and questionable fundraising practices at Reyes’ nonprofit, the Liberate All Value All Foundation.

The problems have renewed calls for the attorney general to be appointed by the governor. Nine candidates, meanwhile, have filed to run later this year to fill the post.

‘Diminishes public trust’

These latest disclosures reflect travel and expenses paid for only with campaign donations. They do not include travel funded by taxpayers or other parties.

The Tribune filed an open records request last fall to obtain Reyes’ official calendar to get a more complete picture of the attorney general’s travel, but the office rejected that request and a subsequent appeal.

KSL-TV also sought Reyes’ calendar and, after the State Records Committee ruled it should be public, the attorney general’s office sued to block the release. The Tribune has filed a brief supporting the release of the records in that case.

Utah’s campaign finance laws forbid spending on “personal use expenditures,” meaning those which further a personal interest that “is not connected with the performance of an activity as a candidate or an activity or duty of an officeholder.”

Crooks has said that the Reyes campaign devoted donor dollars only to campaign activities — and that included travel, airfare and hotel stays as well as fundraising events, attendance at conferences and intercessions on behalf of constituents.

But even if luxury spending by campaigns is legal, said Kedric Payne, the senior director for ethics at the Washington-based nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, it undermines the democratic process.

“To see that the law actually allows someone to benefit from a donor to that extent diminishes public trust,” Payne said, “because the public thinks there may be a potential conflict of interest with the lifestyle that donors are supporting, and the official action they may want from that elected person.”

Previously, at least one lawmaker, state Sen. Mike McKell, has questioned if Reyes’ jet-setting campaign travel leaves him with enough time to commit to fulfilling his obligations to Utah taxpayers.

“It’s egregious,” the Spanish Fork Republican said in November, “that the attorney general for the state of Utah, in a nonelection year, can spend nearly half a million dollars out of his campaign account to travel all over the world doing random stuff that is probably not relevant to his job as attorney general.”

Latest report lacks key detail

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes addresses delegates at the Utah Republican Party 2023 Organizing Convention.

As he did in 2021 and 2022, Reyes regularly rented space last year at Mac’s Place, a membership-only club in Salt Lake City, in addition to coworking spaces operated by Regus Management, a national chain.

The 2023 report shows Reyes again attended what’s known as Dialog Retreats, elite and closed-door discussions with business and technology leaders created by billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, as he has in past years.

The attorney general went to at least three of the exclusive events last year, judging from related spending in June, October and, three days before announcing he would not seek another term, in December.

Yet these spending disclosures — which follow a Tribune report in November on lavish domestic and international travel and more than 30 luxury resort stays over previous years — omit key details the campaign has included in past reports.

In 2022, the Dialog Retreats took Reyes to Santa Barbara, Calif., and a lavish resort in an upscale suburb of Lisbon, Portugal. For 2023, however, the reports leave out full resort names and other information.

The disclosures also appear to show that Reyes spent $568 last May on “supplies” at a clothing store. Utah campaign law explicitly bars clothing purchases unless the goods have the candidate’s logo on them and are used for campaign purposes.

The campaign doled out about $5,000 in the weeks after Reyes said he would leave office when his term expires, including payments totaling $3,644 to Crooks’ consulting firm and the rest in monthly fees and subscriptions

The Reyes campaign subscribed last year to Barron’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Epoch Times and The Salt Lake Tribune, according to the disclosures.

The attorney general continued a practice of self-reimbursement from campaign coffers for travel expenses, as revealed in his 2021 and 2022 reports. The campaign reimbursed Reyes six times in 2023 for a total of $28,802, with no detail on how that money was spent.

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