Utah Supreme Court to Hear GRAMA Case on AG Investigation into Ogden Political Group
Contact: Dan Schroeder, 801-393-4603, firstname.lastname@example.org
David Reymann, Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, 801-257-7939, email@example.com
The Utah Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in a four-year-long dispute over records of the Attorney General’s criminal investigation of Envision Ogden, a mysterious political group formed in 2007.
Envision Ogden was organized in early 2007, ostensibly to promote economic development and recreation in Ogden. The group quickly raised over $87,000 in donations, much of it from businesses and other organizations including banks, hospitals, the Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce, and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Then-mayor Matthew Godfrey solicited most of the major contributions to the group.
Unknown to the donors, however, Envision Ogden then funneled most of its net revenue--over $30,000--to political candidates and to the Utah Republican Party. Over $20,000 of these funds went to two Godfrey-supported city council candidates, who reported that they received the funds not from Envision Ogden but from an even more mysterious, unregistered entity called Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate. Envision Ogden further concealed its political nature by failing to register as a 527 political organization with the IRS until 2008, after its fundraising activities had ceased. (The name “Envision Ogden” may also have been intended to deceive donors, some of whom confused the group with Envision Utah, an unrelated nonprofit organization that promotes long-term urban planning.)
When Envision Ogden’s political nature was discovered in 2009, the Attorney General’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation opened a criminal investigation into possible felony violations including communications fraud and money laundering. However, the investigation stalled for nearly two years until it was finally closed in March 2011, around the time that the statute of limitations would have expired. No criminal charges were ever filed in the case. Although an investigator interviewed several of Envision Ogden’s donors, there is no evidence that investigators ever contacted Mayor Godfrey or any of the political candidates who received funds from Envision Ogden.
As soon as the investigation was closed, Ogden activist and blogger Dan Schroeder filed a request for the Attorney General’s investigation records, under Utah’s Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA). The AG responded by providing some records including a two-page report and several email messages sent among its staff, but withheld other records--most notably a collection of financial documents that it had obtained via subpoena from Envision Ogden’s bank.
Schroeder appealed the AG’s decision to withhold the bank records and a few others, and won a partial victory at the State Records Committee in August 2011. Both Schroeder and the AG then appealed this decision to Third District Court, where in October 2012 Judge Keith Kelly ruled in favor of the AG’s decision to withhold the records. Schroeder, now represented by attorneys at Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, then appealed Judge Kelly’s decision to the Utah Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in this case at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 1, in the Matheson Courthouse, 450 South State Street, 5th Floor, in Salt Lake City.
The principal legal question before the court is whether GRAMA requires the government to disclose financial records obtained via subpoena in the course of a criminal investigation, even when none of GRAMA’s specific exemptions apply to those records. GRAMA does exempt many records from disclosure, for instance, when disclosure would constitute a clear violation of an individual’s privacy, or when a business would be put at a competitive disadvantage through disclosure of its financial records, or when disclosure would compromise an ongoing investigation. In this case, however, the investigation is over, while the financial records are those of a defunct political organization that has not made any privacy claim and that was already required by federal law to disclose its major financial transactions. The Attorney General argues that the Utah Constitution broadly protects the privacy of financial records even in such cases. Schroeder and his attorneys argue that the constitutional requirement was met when the Attorney General obtained the records through a valid subpoena, and that GRAMA provides no applicable exemptions in this case.
Besides the legal issues, this court's decision in this case will determine how much the public will ever learn about Envision Ogden and the Attorney General's investigation. Although the content of the withheld records is unknown, it is likely that they would shed further light on Envision Ogden's financial transactions, including transactions with the mysterious Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate. The records would also show what information the Attorney General's office had in hand when the decision was made to close the investigation without filing charges.
Copies of the legal briefs filed with the Supreme Court in this case are attached.