Big money given after election
When voters went to the polls on Election Day, they were unaware beer wholesalers, a controversial developer and EnergySolutions donated to Kevin VanTassell, the Republican who won a local state Senate seat.
That is because VanTassell did not receive the donations until after Election Day. In some cases, the freshman senator did not garner campaign donations until the beginning of 2007, two months after voters overwhelmingly put him into office, campaign-finance reports filed with state elections officers show.
VanTassell, a banker from Vernal, proved a financial powerhouse in 2006, raising more than $103,000 and spending a little more than $94,000, far more than his challengers, Democrat Roland Uresk and Constitution Party candidate Sonya Ray.
But VanTassell raised about $21,000 after Election Day, approximately one out of every five dollars he brought in. Some of the donations reported after the election came from corporate interests like EnergySolutions, the polarizing radioactive-waste company, a Zions Bank official and industry groups like an attorney political-action committee.
"There was a lot of checks coming in from a lot of different people," VanTassell says, acknowledging that some campaign watchers may be suspicious about the post-Election Day donations. "It’s surprising to me how many come in after you won."
State election rules require candidates declare who contributed money and how the campaign spent the donations several times during the election season, including deadlines just before Election Day and after the vote, when the final numbers are due.
The pre-Election Day filings provide the public with a chance to review the finances, with most people more interested in who is contributing to a candidate. But by allowing the candidates to accept and report donations after the election, donors are sometimes kept hidden from the voters until afterward.
VanTassell says he and his campaign workers needed to spend time on the contest rather than running to the bank each time a donation was received. Some of the checks, he says, were not immediately deposited.
"It’s a matter of how quickly you can get them together and deposit them," he says.
VanTassell is believed to have run the most costly local Statehouse campaign ever. He was especially aggressive in the campaign’s early days, when he faced David Ure, a Kamas Republican who at the time was a popular state legislator, for the GOP’s nomination. They were vying to replace Beverly Evans, the retiring Republican senator in the district. Winning the Republican nod, VanTassell says, was pricey and he estimates about 60 percent of his contributions and expenses went toward beating Ure, not his opponents in November.
EnergySolutions, whose radioactive-waste business was debated during the campaign, donated $450 to VanTassell’s bid, all after Election Day. The senator reported a $300 donation on Nov. 27 and a $150 donation on Nov. 21.
He says he wanted to research the firm before accepting donations and says the campaign held onto the at least one of the checks to allow him to learn more about the company.
"I didn’t know if I was going to keep it or not," VanTassell says. "I hadn’t been out. I didn’t know what was going on."
Uresk, his Democratic opponent, refuses to criticize the post-election donations but wonders why the extra money was necessary. Had all of VanTassell’s donors been made public before the election, Uresk concedes he might have only won a few more percentage points in the Park City area, the more Democratic part of the sprawling Senate district, not enough to beat the Republican.
"When donations come in after the election, then it raises suspicion," Uresk says. "What’s the need for them? The election’s over with."
The last donation Uresk received was reported on Oct. 25, $802 worth of in-kind giving from a Vernal firm called BloomMaster Inc. Ray, the Constitution Party candidate, did not report a donation after receiving $25 from a Salt Lake City woman on Oct. 30.
VanTassell won with 57.9 percent of the vote, easily beating Uresk, with 34.4 percent, and Ray.
He has defended his corporate donations, saying that he is not beholden to industry and he says the money he raised is an appropriate mix of private and business donations.
He introduced three bills in the 2007 session of the Legislature, including one twice, and is assisting on 11 other pieces of legislation. None have been widely criticized on the grounds they cater to Big Business.
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