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SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert raised hundreds of thousands of dollars at his annual fundraising gala Saturday, just hours after demonstrators stood in front of the governor's mansion to protest what they call the state's "pay-to-play" system.
Close to 1,400 people showed up at the Grand America Hotel for the black-tie affair, a staple for Utah's political and business elite, companies and lobbyists who donate anywhere from a few thousand dollars to as much as $25,000.
Last year's event raised over a million dollars. This year pulled in around $700,000.
Hours earlier, a group called the Coalition of Utah Progressives protested at the governor's mansion and called for the release of documents regarding meetings with Herbert's campaign donors who later won lucrative state contracts.
It's impossible for any governor to be aware of every single contract, every bid, every meeting that's happening throughout the state. In this administration, in the Herbert administration, contributions absolutely do not equal access.
"We feel that it's time for the governor to come forward and say why he did this, what's going on," said coalition spokesman Mike Picardi. "In fact, we might even ask him to give back some of these donations to some of these people that have given him these huge donations and have gotten perks from the governor's office."
Members of the coalition specifically questioned the $1.7 billion I-15 CORE contract awarded to a consortium that contributed over $80,000 to the governor's campaign. The controversy escalated with questions surrounding UDOT's $13-million payout to the contractors who lost that bid.
"I think there needs to be an investigation," said protestor Luci Kelly. "Number two, our Legislature will understand where our priorities lie, which is not this kind of shenanigans."
We feel that it's time for the governor to come forward and say why he did this, what's going on.
The coalition also called on Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to investigate the $13-million settlement.
The governor's spokeswoman says last week, the governor's office and UDOT released a slew of documents related to that issue.
"It shouldn't go without notice that they've staged a protest for something that has already occurred," said spokeswoman Angie Welling.
There's no link, she says, between donations to the governor's campaign, access and any official decisions.
"Gov. Herbert is known for his access. Anyone who has taken the time to actually request a meeting with the governor will tell you that they get a meeting with the governor, regardless of if they've paid money or not," Welling says. "It's impossible for any governor to be aware of every single contract, every bid, every meeting that's happening throughout the state. In this administration, in the Herbert administration, contributions absolutely do not equal access."
Herbert said he was unaware of the settlement until Njord disclosed it at a news conference Monday that was intended to show the executive branch isn't influenced by campaign contributions. The governor has repeatedly and angrily denied any wrongdoing.
The two major party candidates in the gubernatorial race will have a chance to exchange their views coming up this week. The first debate between Herbert and Democratic challenger Peter Corroon happens this Thursday at the University of Utah.