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Watchdog group sues Utah AG over ties to GOP attorneys general association

Watchdog group sues Utah AG over ties to GOP attorneys general association

(Mike DeBernardo, KSL TV, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A government watchdog group is suing the Utah Attorney General's Office for allegedly refusing to release documents related to Attorney General Sean Reyes' ties with the Republican Attorneys General Association.

The Center for Media and Democracy argues in a 3rd District Court lawsuit that the office is violating Utah's open records law in not turning over emails and other correspondence with the attorneys general association and its partner organization, the Rule of Law Defense Fund.

According to the Wisconsin-based group, the two "cash-for-influence" organizations promote and coordinate corporate events with GOP attorneys general for its corporate members in the energy, telecom, financial, pharmaceutical and other fields.

“The public has a right to know what special interests are seeking to influence our state’s top law enforcement officer, and whether they have been successful,” said David Reymann, a Salt Lake attorney representing the group.

Reyes' office offered only a brief comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

"While we disagree with politically motivated lawsuits and press releases, it is our policy not to comment on open cases," said Missy Larsen, Reyes' chief of staff.

The Republican Attorneys General Association allows member companies to pay as much as $125,000 to hold private briefings with attorneys general and their staffs, and to let corporate CEOs and lobbyists rub elbows with attorneys general in activities such as golfing, rifle shooting, skiing and kayaking, according to the democracy center.

On its website, the association describes itself as the only national organization whose mission is electing Republican attorneys general. It supports GOP attorneys general and candidates with research, money and message development.

The association contributed $250,000 to Reyes' campaign fund since January 2014.

Reyes and former chief deputy Parker Douglas attended the association's 2015 national summer meeting where Murray Energy and Southern Co. paid for a private meeting with GOP attorneys general to discuss their opposition to -then-President Barack Obama’s clean power plan. Two weeks later, Reyes signed Utah onto a lawsuit to block the plan, according to the media and democracy center.

Reyes also spoke on a panel at the Republican association's February 2017 national meeting and was a featured speaker at the opening and closing luncheons of the Rule of Law Defense Fund's senior staff retreat in April 2016.

The democracy center received 19 documents after it filed an open records request with the attorney general's office in March 2017, but it argues the office failed to release at least 13 other interactions it already knew about.

While we disagree with politically motivated lawsuits and press releases, it is our policy not to comment on open cases.

–Missy Larsen, Reyes' chief of staff

The attorney general's office maintains the interactions with the two organizations "involve unofficial political/campaign activities that were not conducted within the office," the lawsuit says.

"It is disingenuous for Reyes to hide his activity by pretending that it is all related to some future political campaign," said Arn Pearson, the democracy center's general counsel. "It’s all the more troublesome because (the Republican Attorneys General Association) mixes public policy and political fundraising in the same events."

The lawsuit wants a judge to declare the records public and make them available for inspection and copying.

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