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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Republicans came out swinging Friday, itching for a fight over a lawsuit against a controversial election law and lobbing a secret ethics allegation at the state GOP chairman who said the suit will be dropped.
The blows came ahead of the party's governing State Central Committee meeting Saturday in Park City, where intraparty factions are expected to duke it out. On Wednesday, party Chairman Rob Anderson announced he is dropping the lawsuit against the state law known as SB54 that allows candidates to bypass the party's nominating process.
The party has been in debt about three years and owes the attorney appealing a loss in federal court last year some $334,000 and another $61,000 for operational costs that have not been paid, he said earlier this week.
But Phill Wright, a central committee member, countered that only the committee can make the decision to end the case now pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, an action he said would be irresponsible. Wright, who lost to Anderson in the race for state GOP chairman, said Friday his organization Grassroots Republic has raised thousands to continue the legal challenge.
The group has support from Dave Bateman, the CEO of high-tech company Entrata, in Lehi, who said Friday he will pay legal bills going forward, but is not covering the party's existing debt. Others have chipped in $1,800, Wright added.
"If it has to go to the Supreme Court," Bateman said, "I will pay every penny of that, if I have to." Bateman said he has not cut a check yet but wrote a letter to the GOP Friday pledging to pay.
"Where has he been the last three years?" Anderson countered. "If anyone wants to donate, they can click on the (party's) website and donate to the legal defense fund."
Still, the impasse could result in an attempt to fire Anderson at the meeting, though the chairman said he expects the state GOP on Saturday will simply "get on with party business and look forward to the election next year."
Meantime, the Davis County Republican Party sent out a statement saying its ethics committee Thursday had found a "substantiated" claim against Anderson, though it kept the nature of the complaint secret. The complaint was filed in October 2015 when Anderson headed the Davis County GOP.
Davis County Republican Party Chairwoman Teena Horlacher said she understands the timing is suspicious, but that it's "completely unrelated" to the SB54 controversy and the apparent move to oust Anderson.
Anderson countered "this kind of petty infighting" makes the caucus system seem less relevant, and that documentation by the party maintains his innocence.
David Irvine, an attorney and former GOP lawmaker who represented Anderson before the ethics committee, also said he isn't buying it. The timing, he said, isn't a coincidence at all.
"It’s funny because this whole process has been a kangaroo court from the beginning," he said. "The fact that they decided not take any action two years ago should have ended it."
Horlacher said the ethics committee members were "scared" to do anything because Irvine threatened to sue them if they did. The committee suspended its investigation until it could resolve whether its members' legal fees would be covered if that were to happen.
Once resolved in June, the committee picked up its investigation, and informed Davis County GOP leaders Thursday that it found Anderson had engaged in “behavior unbecoming an officer of the DCRP.”
“His tactics of intimidation have brought substantial harm to the party in impeding the work of fairness, order and justice,” the press release cites unidentified ethics committee members as saying.
Irvine said of the ethics complaint, "I think that is a fiction of someone's imagination." Anderson, he said, was never given a copy of the complaint and wasn't told who filed it.
Irvine called it "sandbox politics by a bunch of people who have nothing better to do."
Anderson is no longer a Davis County GOP officer and the party has no jurisdiction to punish him, Irvine said.
"It's just stupid," Irvine said, adding the whole thing comes down to an effort by "right-wing fanatics" to keep the SB54 lawsuit alive.
Horlacher said the ethics committee determined the remedy was the public explanation and statement issued in the press release, which also was to be sent to central committee members and county executive committees.
The Davis County Republican Party executive committee issued a second press release Friday, saying it objects to Anderson discontinuing the SB54 lawsuit. That decision rests with the State Central Committee and Anderson should be held accountable to party bylaws and direction from the committee, according to Davis GOP vice chairwoman Helen Watts. Email: email@example.com Twitter: dennisromboy