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SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert has been challenged by his presumptive Democratic opponent to return a $10,000 campaign donation to a coal company that got a fast-track decision from state regulators on a strip mine.
"The right thing for the governor to do here is to return the money," Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said Thursday. "The public needs to have confidence that their elected officials and government are not in a pay-to-play position."
Corroon, who's running for Herbert's job in the next election, is calling for an independent investigation to establish the facts.
Thursday evening, the governor's office spoke back sharply to the Democratic challenger. Herbert's chief of staff accused Corroon of spreading inaccuracies for political purposes, adding that Herbert will not return the campaign contribution.
The money came from the Alton Coal Development company, which wants to start a coal mine near the town of Alton. On the day the $10,000 contribution was deposited by the governor's campaign, he met with company officials. A month later, the state approved the mining application.
Officials of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining have given conflicting statements on whether the approval process was sped up after the meeting with the governor.
The team leader on the approval told KSL News Wednesday that her supervisors did speed up the timetable and told her that's what the governor wanted.
"That's why we need strong ethics reform up at the Capitol, and we want citizens to have faith that the government is doing the right thing and not being overly influenced by large corporations or money," Corroon said.
But the governor's staff insists he never even knew about the campaign contribution; it went to his campaign committee, not the governor's office. They say he did nothing to pressure the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining on behalf of the coal company.
"No money exchanged hands. No one came to the governor and gave him money, looking to do something on their behalf. It's just inaccurate and really not appropriate to even insinuate that there was in this case," says Jason Perry, the governor's chief of staff.
Perry says the governor will not support an independent investigation.
KSL News asked for an interview with Herbert on this topic both Wednesday and Thursday. His staffers say his schedule is too busy.
Story compiled with contributions from John Hollenhorst and The Associated Press.