Not So Free Speech

Posted By on September 23, 2015

Several municipalities along the Wasatch Front charge permit fees for small free-speech events

Published at City Weekly

From the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington and the 1970 Kent State demonstrations in Ohio, to the 2011 Wisconsin Teacher’s Strike, protests have been instrumental throughout U.S. history as citizens have used their right to free speech and assembly to speak out against perceived injustice. But the right to free speech isn’t always free. In fact, when protesting in many Utah locales, it often comes with a price tag.

Activists with the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) and Direct Action Everywhere staged several protests this summer outside of the Lagoon amusement park in Farmington, speaking out against what they allege is the park’s mistreatment of zoo animals. After demonstrations over several Saturdays, coalition director Jeremy Beckham along with Lexie Levitt, Direct Action Everywhere organizer (and former City Weekly intern/freelance writer), were charged with class B misdemeanors for violating a city ordinance that made it illegal to “participate in any advanced, planned free-speech expression activity without first obtaining a permit for the event.”

Representatives of UARC say they contacted the city of Farmington via email asking it to waive the $50 per-protest fee but were denied. The protests took place on a public sidewalk and did not obstruct automobile or foot traffic. The charges were later dropped.

After UARC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sued Farmington City for violating the coalition’s free-speech rights, the Farmington City Council repealed the $50 permit requirement on Sept. 15.

Every municipality is different, and permit laws are not identical. In Salt Lake City, for example, a $5 “Free Expression Permit” requires 30-days advance notice to process. However, according to the city’s website, “Applications for spontaneous free expression activities, occurring due to some current event, can be submitted 14 or fewer days from event, to include day of.”

Salt Lake City Attorney Margaret Plane says while the city’s permit is different from Farmington’s, it’s still “constitutional.”

“[It’s] just meant to plan for the things the capital city deals with,” she says.

Still, differences between the cities’ laws can make the permit process especially difficult for protesters. ACity Weekly reporter contacted 30 municipalities along the Wasatch Front to learn the requirements on protests involving 100 or fewer people who want to protest on public sidewalks or in parks without blocking auto or pedestrian traffic. Each city transferred the reporter, on average, between three and four times, usually shuffling calls between the city manager, parks & recreation, the mayor’s office and eventually to the city police departments. Most of the calls ended up with the city’s chief of police.

Of the 30 cities, 16 have laws requiring protesters obtain permission to protest. Permit costs range from free (in North Ogden, Layton, South Salt Lake, West Jordan, South Jordan, Cottonwood Heights, Eagle Mountain, Pleasant Grove and Lindon) up to $100 (in Holladay).

While “time, place and manner” restrictions on free speech are commonly applied, they must be applied without regard to the content of the speech. “When the government puts restrictions on free-speech activities, it needs to do so in a very narrowly tailored sort of way,” says John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah. Two years ago, the ACLU of Utah successfully sued the Utah Department of Transportation for requiring protesters from the group iMatter to purchase a multimillion-dollar insurance policy and sign indemnification forms—in addition to paying the city for a Free Expression permit—before the group could march on State Street in Salt Lake City.

Three years ago, the ACLU also sued Brigham City over its permit requirement after the city refused to allow members of the Main Street Church of Brigham City to distribute religious fliers on public sidewalks at an open house prior to the dedication of the Brigham City LDS Temple.

But, according to activist Beckham, the problem with having to file a lawsuit every time a municipality requires a permit for free speech is that even the possibility of a potential misdemeanor is enough to scare away some protestors from participating. “There are other people who came to that protest besides Lexie and me who have now dropped completely out of the activist community,” says Beckham. Often this is because employers enforce strict “no criminal charges” policies. “These people are now terrified that the police are going to track them down,” Beckham says, to the point that some tried to have protest photos deleted from their social media.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings says the charges never should have been filed in the first place. “I agree with them,” says Rawlings. “[Beckham and Levitt] should not have been charged. It’s a prosecution that should not have commenced. It’s an ordinance that should be repealed, and it is unconstitutional.”

Rawlings says that when he met with Farmington officials, he told them that there was no way they could win a legal challenge against the law, particularly because Farmington did not apply the law equally to all free-speech events. “They weren’t requiring a permit for the Farmington Junior High cheerleaders out on the street waiving at people … They didn’t require a person dressed in a clown suit outside of a tax business to get a permit.”

Are these Utah cities purposefully intending to infringe upon the free-speech rights of citizens? Most likely no, says Connor Boyack, head of the Libertas Institute, which is conducting a similar study regarding municipalities throughout Utah. “Farmington’s rushed repeal of their protest permit requirement is an indication that such ordinances are not well thought-out,” says Boyack. “Hopefully, Farmington’s fix will be replicated elsewhere.”

Of 30 municipalities along the Wasatch Front surveyed, 14 required no protest permit; nine required a protest permit but did not charge a fee; and seven required a permit with a fee. Here is the data:

Protest Permit Data


All in Moderation

Posted By on September 16, 2015

Judge urges GOP party and Gov. Herbert to negotiate

Published at City Weekly

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer is pushing the Utah Republican Party, the Utah Constitution Party and Gov. Gary Herbert to use a mediator to resolve their ongoing lawsuit over Senate Bill 54. The election-reform law, passed by the Utah Legislature in 2014, allows political candidates to circumvent the traditional party-run caucus convention system and appear on the ballot by gathering signatures.

Lawmakers intended SB54 as a compromise between the Republican Party’s desire to stick with the caucus-convention system and the Count My Vote (CMV) initiative that would have created a direct primary (allowing Utah’s 650,000 unaffiliated voters to participate in the primary election of their choice). In late 2014, the Utah Republican Party sued the governor, arguing the state shouldn’t have a say in how political parties choose their candidates.

At a Sept. 8 hearing, Judge Nuffer seemed to have little appetite for issuing a ruling on the lawsuit himself. “I get an ax, and you have pocket knives,” said Nuffer. “You could do a wonderful sculpt, and I just cut broadly.”

Mark Thomas, chief deputy to Utah’s lieutenant governor and director of elections in Utah noted it was the Constitution Party that filed the motion asking the judge for mediation. “We’re happy to try and mediate this,” said Thomas. “But there’s also the Republican Party. [GOP Chairman] James Evans said at the [Republican State Convention in August] that the Republican Party isn’t going to settle this, so we’re kind of in a tough spot.”

In an interview with City Weekly, Evans seemed at least willing to give the mediation method a try. “The Republican Party has always been open to any avenue that would get this resolved,” says Evans. However, he adds, “We’re holding fast on our constitutional claims” that the state did not have the authority to pass SB54 in the first place.

In addition to the difficulty of finding a solution that all parties can live with, negotiations could be tricky because the governor does not have the power to enact changes to the law; that is the work of the Legislature. “You are, to some extent, negotiating with a ghost,” Nuffer acknowledged.

Thomas says that while Nuffer is busy pondering the legal aspects of the case, he is well aware of the political impacts. “When you’re talking about laws,” Thomas says, “there’s always a political part to it. But when you’re talking about election law, there’s an even bigger political nature to it.” All the governor’s office can do, Thomas says, is to “make sure that whatever [the parties] agree with is ultimately ratified by the Legislature.”

Previous discussions between the parties have been unfruitful, and tensions are high among Republican Party leaders, legislators and the governor [see “Party Animals,” Sept. 2, City Weekly].

If the Republican Party had not changed its rules to comply with SB54 in time for the State Republican Convention in August, GOP candidates would not have been allowed to run as Republicans in the general election.

In an earlier sworn declaration in the case, Evans stated that it would be “impossible” for the party to change its rules in time for the election. But delegates managed to change the party’s rules in time for the August state convention, bringing the party’s nominations process into compliance with SB54.

Evans explained that the party was able to quickly pass those changes thanks to the advice and counsel of Judge Nuffer himself. “The judge said several times during that hearing that we should use our membership rules, so that’s what we did,” says Evans. The Republican Party now requires candidates going through either the caucus-convention system or the petition route to sign disclosure statements on their positions.

Even though the Republican Party met the deadline to be in compliance with SB54, it is still moving forward with a lawsuit in hopes of overturning the law entirely.

Nuffer has ordered the parties to agree to a mediator by Sept. 16. Some of the names suggested at the hearing included U.S Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead, former Lt. Gov.—and now CEO of the Utah Hospital Association—Greg Bell, and the Legislature’s former general counsel Gay Taylor. The first round of mediation will take place on either Sept. 30 or Oct. 1.

Party Animals

Posted By on September 2, 2015

GOP chairman accuses senator of telling donors to withhold from the party

Published at City Weekly

A long-standing feud between Utah State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans may have finally reached a tipping point, as Evans told City Weekly this week that Weiler has been calling party donors and telling them not to give any more money while Evans is chairman.

Weiler strongly disputes the allegation. “I’ve never once called any donor and told them not to donate. In fact, there’s a chair in the Republican Party headquarters with my name on the back of it because of how much I’ve donated to the party myself. … These tactics are just ridiculous. I would love to see him name that donor [making the claim].”

Evans declined to provide the names of these donors for City Weekly. “I’m making the claims. Todd can refute it all he wants. But I’m not going to drag them into the middle of this,” Evans says.

“I’m just baffled why Todd continues to attack the party and seems to have such a negative narrative,” says Evans. He says donors had called him to ask why Weiler was telling them not to give money to the party. “I’ve complained repeatedly at meetings that there was an elected official who contacted our donors and asked them not to give to the party, but I’ve never said who it was. But now, I’m deciding to say, ‘enough.’ It was Todd Weiler. He seems to have this pattern of doing everything he can to harm the party. He just doesn’t stop.”

Weiler says Evans isn’t releasing the name because the claim is a fiction. “There is no donor. The name doesn’t exist,” he says. James has “the worst job in politics—an unpaid position, I might add,” he says, “and I have a lot of sympathy for him. … James has gotten the party to where it needs to be. He’s moved mountains and worked miracles. I take issue with the way he got us here, but he got us here, and I give him credit for that.”

However, Weiler says, “I’m not his therapist, but I think James likes to portray himself as a victim.”

When Evans first ran for chairman of the Utah Republican Party in 2013, Weiler endorsed him for the position. “I was proud to stand next to him that day, and I still consider him a friend,” says Weiler.

But things between the two grew tense, as did tensions between the Republic delegates and lawmakers, in the spring of 2014, when the Utah Legislature passed Senate Bill 54. The election-reform law created a compromise between the Republican Party’s desire to stick with the caucus-convention system and the Count My Vote (CMV) initiative that would create a direct primary (allowing Utah’s 650,000 unaffiliated voters to participate in the primary election of their choice). Now that SB54 is law, candidates can take either the convention or signature-gathering route to get their names on the ballot.

The compromise did not sit well with Republican Party leaders and delegates, and Evans filed a lawsuit in late 2014 to have the law overturned. In previous interviews about the lawsuit, Evans questioned whether or not the state should have a say in how private organizations choose their candidates.

Over the months that followed, the spat between Weiler and Evans became more constant in press interviews and on social media. On April 20, the GOP’s official Twitter account sent out a tweet: “It’s sad that [Weiler] chooses to attack [the Republican Party] instead of assisting.”

“I’m sorry—what did I get wrong?” Weiler tweeted back.

Weiler takes exception to what he calls “being turned into the bad guy,” when he says the Legislature was simply acting to protect the caucus-convention system however it could. “Once Mitt Romney endorsed [CMV], we felt it was inevitable that it would pass, so we had to do something,” says Weiler.

That sentiment was shared by many of Weiler’s Republican colleagues in the Legislature, including then-Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, who, in an op-ed on wrote, “All of my colleagues who supported SB 54 honestly believed the CMV initiative would pass and the [caucus-convention system] would be gone … probably forever.”

Evans, on the other hand, called SB 54 a “travesty” at a press conference discussing the party’s lawsuit, and an infringement on the party’s rights.

The rift seemed to grow deeper earlier this year when Evans announced a proposal that the party institute an interview process for candidates, so the party could control which candidates would be allowed to list themselves as Republicans on the ballot. The new proposal was not implemented, but it would have compelled Republican candidates choosing either the caucus-convention route or the petition route to sit for a “star-chamber” type of interview with a few high-ranking members of the Republican Party, with each candidate being questioned about where they stand on the party’s issues. They would also have been required to pay a $10,000 fee. If candidates refused the interview or the fee, they would not be allowed to identify themselves as Republicans on the ballot.

At the time, Evans said that if the party didn’t require Republican candidates to go through this interview, “there’s absolutely no requirement that they’d have to interact with the party whatsoever, and you might have Democrats running as Republicans. This is about controlling the Republican brand.”

Weiler quickly dubbed the interviews “PPIs” on Twitter, a reference to the LDS Church’s practice of Personal Priesthood Interviews, in which each church member meets with local leaders, who determine whether or not the member is worthy to enter LDS temples.

In a heated April 2015 debate aired on KVNU 610 AM’s For the People radio show in Logan, Evans accused Weiler of misrepresenting him and the proposal. “It’s a constant twisting, a twisting of what we’re doing,” Evans told Weiler and listeners. “We are simply trying to compel behavior by defining our membership.”

“It’s the voters who should decide [candidates’] worthiness,” Weiler fired back, “not the party.”

“This whole concept just stinks of exclusiveness,” added Paul Mero, former president of the the conservative Sutherland Institute who was co-hosting the show with radio host Jason Williams that day. “And it just tells me what happens when ideologues try to do anything.”

“I just can’t understand this idea that the Republican Party is suing the Republican Legislature and the Republican governor for enacting a law that protects the Republican Party,” Weiler said in a recent interview with City Weekly. “It’s insane.”

But things may have finally reached a tipping point in August at the Republican State Convention. On the ballot were four proposals—three of which involved bringing the party into compliance with SB 54 (although the lawsuit will continue moving forward, says Evans). After Evans made the initial presentation, Weiler and others spoke in opposition to the proposal that would give the Republican Central Committee the power to determine party membership. Weiler says while he is in favor of candidates signing disclosure statements so voters know where they stand on issues, he fears that allowing the Central Committee to make alterations to membership requirements at any time concentrates too much power in the committee’s hands.

“Instead of leaving the decisions [on membership] to the 4,000 state delegates,” says Weiler, “that power now goes to 180 Central Committee members, [giving them] a blank check.”

Weiler himself is a member of the committee, but since not all 180 members show up to each meeting, it means that some committee decisions are passed by only a handful of people. Some votes require a simple majority of those present; others require a two-thirds majority. Thus, any major decision about who can or cannot identify as a Republican on the ballot could be decided by a small number of committee members. “They could easily say, ‘OK, anyone who votes in favor of [Governor Herbert’s] Healthy Utah is no longer a Republican,’ and start excommunicating Republicans when they’re up for re-election.”

The day after the convention, Weiler tweeted a list of “Top 10 disturbing things” about the convention. Of the 10, six involved Evans’ treatment of the proposals. “Parliamentary procedure was ignored and abused at the chair’s pleasure,” wrote Weiler, who pointed to an hour-long conference call for delegates before the convention where Evans spent time advocating for the proposals. Weiler also tweeted his objection to Evans using personal time as chair to rebut every person who spoke against the proposals.

Evans says his comments weren’t intended as rebuttals. “I was simply trying to clarify the misrepresentations being made about the proposals, which I’m absolutely allowed to do under our bylaws,” he says.

Tim Chambless, a professor of political science at the University of Utah who is also affiliated with the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, says he’s not surprised that the feud between Evans and Weiler is ongoing.

“You’ve got to look at the calendar. In about six months, there will be the caucus meetings for candidates and those who want to be candidates through the caucus-convention system, and we’ve got a number of statewide offices up for election, the presidential race, and especially that Senate race with Mike Lee. So, you can fairly say that there’s a relationship between the struggles over the status of SB54, and that’s politics. They’re looking ahead to 2016.

“The Republican Party is the dominant party in the state,” says Chambless. “And when you have such a large party, you’re going to have many differences of opinion within their membership. A party that tries to stand for everything is going to have many dissident voices.”

Chambless says it’s “foggy” as to whether the feud or even SB54 itself will have much effect on voters next year, but he says he believes that the Evans/Weiler feud has become very personal.

So will the face-off between two senior Republicans continue, or can the rift be healed? “Politics is all about relationships,” Chambless says. “It’s also about power and getting what you want from the public-policy process. You can have good relationships by doing what James Madison said, ‘Compromise, compromise, compromise,’ and you can also have political feuds. The Democratic Party has them as well, but in Utah the Republican Party is far more likely to have feuds and have matters taken personally, because they have all the power.”

Armed Resistance

Posted By on August 26, 2015

A new report links Utah legislator to patriot groups

Published at City Weekly

Patriot and militia groups are once again on the rise. As of 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 330 such groups, noting that they began gaining traction after the 2008 election of the first African-American U.S. president. The groups are often known for nationalistic and often violent rhetoric as well as armed opposition to the government. Their views are becoming decidedly more mainstream in conservative circles as fears mount over the intrusiveness of Big Government.

The Center for Western Priorities, a liberal conservation group opposed to the privatization of public land, recently released a report called “Going to Extremes,” examining ties between militia groups and coordinated effort by lawmakers from the West that call for states to take over public lands. “At the center of the land grab,” the report says, “is Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative and president of the American Lands Council.”

The report specifically links Ivory to these groups by pointing to a promotional video that featured Ivory, where he says, “We are in the Second Great Revolution, and it’s a revolution of ideologies.” Ivory also signed a resolution for the group under his official title as a Utah legislator saying that the “arrest of citizens or seizure of persons or property without first notifying and obtaining the express consent of the local sheriff” will not be tolerated.

Ivory calls the report and its claims that he’s connected to or supports the tactics of patriot and militia groups “a political hit piece” and “utterly ridiculous.

“We’re working on education, legislation and litigation,” says Ivory. “That is the opposite of what we’re trying to work on.”

With 67 percent of Utah lands federally controlled, Ivory’s American Lands Council website argues, state ownership of federal lands is needed to better fund education, provide better environmental stewardship of the land, grow the state’s economy and foster energy independence.

And the argument appears to be resonating with patriot and militia groups. The patriot and militia movement gained momentum in the early ’90s, with dozens of organized groups threatening to fight back against the U.S. government and what they saw as a coming takeover by the U.N. to create a “One World Government.” But when militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the movement and its rhetoric became largely shunned—that is, until 2008, when these types of patriot groups began appearing under names like Oath Keepers, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), Militia of Montana, Hutaree Militia and others.

Unlike their ’90s predecessors, many of this new breed began attaching themselves to political movements such as the Tea Party, resulting in their rhetoric and beliefs graduating from the fringes of society into state legislatures, Congress and even into talking points for 2016 presidential candidates.

One such group, Oath Keepers claims on its website its members are made up of former military personnel, police and first responders who have taken an oath to “defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “refuse to obey unconstitutional orders.” Oath Keepers likens its mission to resisting the tyranny of Nazi Germany. The group also lauds Ivory on its website as a leading voice in the “quest for constitutional justice for the States.”

Likewise, the CSPOA is made up of current and former county sheriffs who have pledged to refuse to enforce laws they believe to be unconstitutional, and to physically resist efforts by the United States to enforce federal laws—as was the case in the April 2014 standoff between militia members and federal law-enforcement officers at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada. A CSPOA promotional video features Ivory speaking at the group’s conference. He also signed one of the group’s resolutions, using his official title of Utah state representative.

CSPOA’s founder is former Graham County, Ariz., Sheriff Richard Mack, who is also an Oath Keepers board member. He describes the CSPOA as “the army to set our nation free.” When asked who decides which federal laws are unconstitutional, Mack said, “You read the Constitution and decide. We have to make the determination ourselves.” Mack also was adamant that the U.S. Supreme Court has no authority to decide constitutional issues, arguing instead that the power rests with counties.

According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report, Mack founded CSPOA in order to train law enforcement in Oath Keeper tactics. “These are now sheriffs who are learning and willing to learn to become Oath Keeper sheriffs,” Mack said, according to the report.

In April 2015, two gold miners on federal land in rural Oregon were ordered to sotp work by the BLM, which found the mine lacked necessary paperwork. After the miners contacted the Oath Keepers, dozens of armed militiamen reportedly were sent along with members of the CSPOA provide security for the mines. This tactic was repeated in August 2015, when Oath Keepers and other anti-government groups gathered at a mine on public lands in Montana. Also in August, heavily armed Oath Keepers were seen on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., which was under a state of emergency following demonstrations related to the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.

So why did Ivory appear in a video for the CSPOA and sign its resolution? “I spoke at the convention at the request of Sheriff Mack,” says Ivory, explaining that the video was taken from a speech he gave at a CSPOA convention. He says there’s no difference between his speaking to the militia group and the interviews he’s given to NPR and other media outlets. “I speak at events all the time. We invite all to listen to our story,” says Ivory. “Separately, some folks presented me with the resolution, and it seemed to me to make sense what they were doing with that.”

Ivory says the speech and resolution represent his only involvement with these groups, although Mack says they’ve met many times. “We know each other very well,” he says.

As a driving forces behind the “take back our federal lands” campaign in the American West, Ivory wants state governments to control public lands, a move that could allow the state to open up public lands for energy development or even private sale. Ivory founded the nonprofit American Lands Council (ALC) in 2012, just before he successfully sponsored a bill at the Utah Legislature demanding such a turnover of public lands. He now travels throughout the West promoting ALC and trying to persuade local governments to sign up as ALC members (fees go as high as $25,000 annually).

In June 2015, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a Washington, D.C., watchdog group filed a complaint, alleging he was scamming local governments into giving taxpayer dollars to his organization on the promise that he can get public lands turned over to them. Ivory called those allegations “a shameful and desperate political stunt.”

Dems Jockey for Position

Posted By on August 26, 2015

Rep. Hemingway looks to re-take embattled successor’s seat

Published at City Weekly

With Rep. Justin Miller, D-Salt Lake City, facing a federal investigation into allegations he stole campaign funds from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Democratic leaders have asked Miller’s predecessor, Lynn Hemingway, to come out of retirement.

“I’m running,” says Hemingway, who, in 2014, retired from the Legislature after eight years of service. “I retired because [my wife and I] were planning on moving to St. George. I thought we had a great candidate in Justin Miller, and I wouldn’t feel bad about walking away. But, now, I just feel guilty.”

Hemingway and his wife decided against the move, citing the summer heat in St. George. Then, Hemingway says, he was approached with the idea to run again by Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis. “Gene and I had dinner together, and he asked me to consider it,” says Hemingway.

Davis’ interest in Hemingway’s candidacy is understandable. Not only have the two been friends “for a long, long time,” but Davis resides in House District 40, which Justin Miller represents. “I supported [Hemingway] when he ran the first time, and I was disappointed when he decided not to run again,” Davis says.

Hemingway will not be the only Democrat challenging Miller. Also declared is Amy Fowler, who ran against Miller in 2014 and lost at convention by only a couple of votes. Local accountant Chris Stout also has announced plans to run.

But Miller says he isn’t worried about any of the challengers and is planning on running for re-election again next year. “I think Lynn was a fantastic legislator,” says Miller, who was endorsed by Hemingway when he ran for the seat in 2014.

But the embattled representative may face other obstacles before the 2016 elections arise. “I think a lot of people in that district are unhappy with Justin,” says House Democratic Leader Brian King.

King says he and his colleagues haven’t yet ruled out officially expelling Miller from the House Democrat caucus. “It’s a possibility,” says King, “[but] there’s a feeling among some members of the caucus that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is more than just a phrase, and that we ought to let this play out a little bit more and see what information comes to light. I think that would give some more time to feel comfortable expelling him.”

King has called for Miller to resign, but many Republicans and even a few Democrats on the blog Utah Politico Hub have grumbled about how long it has been taking when, in 2013, the Democrats almost immediately called for then-Attorney General John Swallow to resign after allegations of financial wrongdoings emerged.

But King insists there’s a big difference. “With Swallow, there was a steady drumbeat for months with new information. With Justin, there haven’t been nearly the ongoing revelations of wrongdoing that there was about Swallow. There were the initial set of stories from [City Weekly‘s Stephen] Dark, and there have been a story or two since then about the shoplifting stuff, but we haven’t heard anything else about Justin for weeks and weeks now. But I think if Justin stays on and doesn’t see fit to resign, we could very well get to a place where [expelling him from the caucus] happens.” King declined to give a timetable on when that might happen.

“That’s their prerogative,” says Miller, “But to be honest, there hasn’t been anything that’s come out significantly since [the allegations] came out. Nothing’s changed from the feds taking on and expanding their case. It’s unfortunate the direction the House caucus has taken with this, because it seems to be entirely politically motivated.”

Miller is concerned that in the face of an open investigation, his fellow Democrats have taken a one-sided “shoot-from-the-hip” approach instead of waiting for due process to play out. “It’s a little bit more of a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality that I’ve seen come out of the leadership.”

If Miller were to resign or were somehow forced from office by the ongoing federal investigation, a special election would be called within 30 days to find a replacement. Otherwise, Miller will face re-election along with every other House member in 2016, and, Miller says, that’s plenty of time to make his case with the delegates.

“There’s a lot going on,” says Hemingway. “To be honest, I was really disappointed to hear that the Salt Lake police gave up the investigation to the FBI. But as far as I’m concerned, everything in the district is on hold. I want to be fair to Justin, but I also want to be fair to the people I represented for eight years.”

Litigious City

Posted By on August 12, 2015

A would-be property owner says Salt Lake City is suing him for fraud for attempts to acquire watershed lands

Published at City Weekly

In the lead up to the recent Salt Lake City mayoral primary, candidate Dave Robinson was heard to frequently chastise incumbent Mayor Ralph Becker for his “preference for litigation” in land disputes. Robinson repeatedly referenced the city’s lawsuit that named an 80-year-old grandmother in litigation involving old mining property in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

That grandmother, former schoolteacher Geniel Crawford, was surrounded by her family when she passed away in February 2015. They will remember her playing the piano and violin, and taking hikes with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. At the time of her death, she was being sued by Salt Lake City for $500,000.

Up Big Cottonwood Canyon, a beautiful spot of land known as Argenta is made up of 320 acres of open space stretching from Kessler Peak down through the forest to Big Cottonwood Creek. Purchased by the Colonia Mining Co. more than 100 years ago, the mine was abandoned in the 1930s and reportedly has been left untouched since.

For the past few decades, property taxes went unpaid to Salt Lake County, until Geniel’s son, physician assistant Wayne Crawford, noticed the property and its unpaid taxes. He became interested in acquiring the land.

Under Utah law, if the owner of land does not use or occupy it, another person may establish an ownership claim by using or occupying it openly, and paying taxes for seven years, under a concept known as “adverse possession.”

Crawford fell in love with the land and its history and, in 2007, began the adverse-possession process. To that end, he allegedly paid the $50,000 in back taxes to the county, and says he and his family hiked, picnicked and researched historical records of interesting places to explore on the 320 acres. They also put up a gate, roughly 50 “No Trespassing” signs, and removed some of the lumber from the mining company’s old crop of lumber trees. Crawford says he also paid an additional $30,000 in property taxes over the next seven years, before filing a quit claim in 2014 to officially become the owner of the property. He also legally purchased the name Colonia Mining Co. in order to, he says, demonstrate that the original company was defunct. That’s when Salt Lake City took notice.

Salt Lake City owns roughly 27,000 acres of watershed land in the Wasatch canyons, and has set aside approximately $1.5 million each year to acquire more. When Salt Lake City found out about the property, Crawford claims the city contacted three former directors of the now-defunct mining company and offered to pay them $480,000 for the land if they would give the city authority in the contract to litigate on their behalf. The three former directors reportedly agreed, and Salt Lake City then launched a $500,000 lawsuit against Crawford, his company, his wife and his mother for fraud and trespassing.

“They didn’t just name me in the suit,” says Crawford. “They also named my wife and my mother as co-defendants.” Crawford said he believes his wife and 80-year-old mother were named in the suit specifically to intimidate him into immediately giving in.

“His wife and mother were named because [Crawford] listed them as principles in the new company,” says Salt Lake City Public Utilities Director Jeff Niermeyer, who affirmed that the city is interested in the property for preservation of watershed land. “What he did was create a company with the exact same name as a historic mining company, even though it wasn’t that company.”

Niermeyer says the city believes that Crawford was deliberately trying to create confusion by setting up a new company with the old Colonia name, and then deeding the land to himself in order to create a “chain of title.”

That’s when Crawford called on his friend, Dave Robinson (who would later announce his mayoral bid) and asked him to intercede with the city and negotiate a truce. Robinson says he reached out to deputy city attorney Rusty Vetter, but that Vetter refused via email to meet with him.

Crawford says his plan was to have Wasatch Canyons Foundation purchase the land from him, and the foundation could then either turn it over to the U.S. Forest Service or obtain a conservation easement so the land would be preserved. Crawford said the foundation liked the idea, and a contract was drawn up agreeing to the purchase.

Wasatch Canyons Foundation board member John Bennett says he and representatives from the Utah Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service met with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Vetter and Niermeyer to advocate for the proposal. “They started out the meeting immediately trying to warn us away from moving forward [with Crawford],” Bennett says. “Vetter said [Crawford] is committing fraud and should be in jail.”

Vetter vehemently disagrees with Bennett’s recall of the meeting. “I absolutely did not say that,” about Crawford, he said.

Bennett says that the group pushed the administration to withdraw its suit so that the land could be preserved without any cost to the city—but while the administration liked the idea of it being preserved, and, in fact, that was their own goal for the land, “they didn’t want to reward fraud.”

Not only did the city refuse to drop its lawsuit so that the foundation’s purchase could move forward, the city also subpoenaed the foundation, its board and its advisory board for all emails mentioning Argenta, Colonia Mining Company and Crawford.

One of those advisory board members happens to be former Salt Lake County mayor and current Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon, who says he was extremely disappointed to receive the subpoena and with the city’s apparent lack of interest in cutting a deal. “It seems like [the city] wants to spend more time on litigation then they actually do getting results,” Corroon said.

Crawford alleges that city officials continue to tell people he is committing criminal fraud. This, despite Niermeyer saying that they had been told by the Salt Lake County attorney that since there had been no harm, no criminal fraud was taking place, according to video clips provided by Robinson of Niermeyer’s deposition.

Crawford says he has now served Salt Lake City with a notice of intent to file a lawsuit for defamation.

Meanwhile, Vetter acknowledged that there have been settlement discussions but they have not as yet been fruitful.

(Un)free to Believe

Posted By on July 29, 2015

What’s the difference between the Founders’ definition of religious freedom and what we’re seeing today?

Published at City Weekly

Religious freedom is one of those rare principles that both the Left and Right believe to be among the most important issues of our time. But what is religious freedom? The definition shifts depending on who is talking and what they want to use it for.

During the 2015 legislative session, Utah lawmakers refused to pass basic housing and employment protections for LGBT people without also simultaneously passing an enhanced version of religious freedom, allowing certain businesses and institutions to be exempt from obeying the law if religious beliefs so dictated.

The resulting bill was co-written by Robin Fretwell Wilson, a leading Religious Right operative who advocates that religious individuals who own businesses should be exempted from civil-rights laws based on their religious beliefs. Wilson also wrote a 2010 paper arguing that government employees should be exempt from providing government services to those with whom they disagree on religious grounds.

Just prior to the Supreme Court issuing its June 26 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced legislation in Congress to prevent any federal agency from denying a tax exemption, grant, contract, license or certification to an individual, association or business that may discriminate against LGBT individuals or couples based upon religious beliefs.

So what is the real definition of religious freedom? The first religious liberty law ever passed was written by none other than Thomas Jefferson. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the Founding Father’s way of countering the early colonies, which in the 1700s existed as miniature theocracies. The bill not only removed the Anglican Church as the official state church, but provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will; and that their beliefs or non-beliefs “shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

How important was this groundbreaking concept to Jefferson? On his tombstone, he listed his top three accomplishments in life: writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia and writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Even his presidency wasn’t as important.

The bill was then ushered into law by James Madison, just one year before he traveled to Philadelphia to become one of the principle authors of the U.S. Constitution.

Religious freedom couldn’t be more clear: It is a shield to protect the beliefs of U.S. citizens from government and powerful institutions, but it also means that their religious beliefs can in no way be used to either elevate or diminish their capacity as citizens, or used to affect the civil capacities of others.

That definition was put to the test during the civil-rights era, when business owners sought exemptions from civil-rights laws—such as desegregation—based on their religious beliefs. Many claimed that the government had no right to force them to serve people of color because it was against their sincerely held religious beliefs. Those arguments were quickly shot down in the courts, because the government was not writing a law dictating anyone’s beliefs—only that they must treat people equally in the public square.

Congress agreed in 1993, when it passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Spurred by Employment Division v. Smith, a case that involved American Indians in Oregon being denied state benefits because they were fired for using peyote in religious ceremonies, it passed with wide bipartisan support and, unlike some of the recent state versions of the RFRA, specifically limited itself to actions taken by the government against individuals.

So what’s the difference between the Founders’ definition of religious freedom and what we’re seeing today? I contacted Sen. Lee to ask him how he defines religious liberty. In an email, he says he believes it to be “[T]he right of individuals and associations to form their own religious beliefs and to act on those beliefs in private and public life. Government’s role is to protect that universal freedom, and the space it provides people of all faiths, and no faith at all, to live out the dictates of conscience.”

That sounds pretty close to the original definition. But it also seems at odds with the provisions inside of the Senator’s new legislation, and with what the Utah Legislature passed earlier this year. The ability to pick and choose one’s beliefs or non-beliefs—and to change one’s mind—are paramount. But according to Jefferson and Madison, real religious freedom means no individual, organization, business, institution or government has the right to wield beliefs like a sword—forcing others to choose between their individual conscience, or accessing their civil capacities.

It is already, and properly, unconstitutional to force religions, churches or clergy to perform religious ceremonies that violate their beliefs. But shielding businesses, organizations or institutions that are actively discriminating based on religious beliefs isn’t a protection of religious freedom. It could more closely be defined as a violation of religious freedom.