Utah AG faces criticism over contribution from company involved in lawsuit

Posted at 3:59 PM, May 22, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is facing criticism over accepting a $5,000 campaign donation from a central figure in a lawsuit over a new state law.

But the attorney general insists that it has had no influence over the decisions of his office.

Reyes' campaign took the donation from 1-800-CONTACTS, which is involved in a lawsuit with the state of Utah over a state law that bans "price-fixing" of contact lenses.

SB169 prohibits lens makers from setting a minimum price or discriminating against sellers who would offer those lenses at a lower price. Bausch & Lomb, Alcon Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson sued the state after the law took effect last month, claiming the new law is unconstitutional. Costco and 1-800-CONTACTS, based in Draper, have sided with the state and argue that price-fixing is anti-consumer.

"The problem with this particular contribution at this particular time is, one, he's in a unique position and, two, is currently involved in this particular lawsuit," said Josh Kanter, the board president of Alliance for a Better Utah, a liberal think tank.

In a statement to FOX 13 on Friday, Reyes insisted the contribution had no bearing on the lawsuit. He wrote:

“When I took an oath to uphold the Utah Constitution and protect Utah citizens and businesses from violent and white collar crime, one  of my top priorities was, and still is, to restore public trust. My campaign has carefully scrutinized all donations since the day I committed to becoming a public servant. In no way do any donations, no matter the amount, have any bearing on policy or case decisions in the Utah AG office and they never will.”

Reyes' campaign provided FOX 13 with a copy of the check, which shows 1-800-CONTACTS made a donation a week before the lawsuit was filed against Utah, on April 7. The donation was reported to state elections officials on May 1.

A check from 1-800-CONTACTS to the Sean Reyes campaign. (Provided by the Sean Reyes campaign)

A check from 1-800-CONTACTS to the Sean Reyes campaign. (Provided by the Sean Reyes campaign)

Even if the law appears to be good for consumers, Kanter pointed to the perception of Reyes accepting the contribution.

"Those are nice words and we would agree with all of those, but the reality is that his predecessors had a constitutional obligation to uphold the law and now look at the situation we're in," he said.

Former Utah Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff are facing corruption-related charges, accused of accepting gifts and donations from people facing investigation by the office. Both men have insisted they are innocent.

A look at campaign disclosure reports reveals that Reyes is hardly alone on Utah's Capitol Hill when it comes to contributions from 1-800-CONTACTS. The company last year donated more than $90,000 to campaigns for state lawmakers, the governor and both the Republican and Democratic parties.

One lawmaker who did not appear to receive a donation from 1-800-CONTACTS last year was SB169 sponsor, Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork.

See the list of political contributions made by 1-800-CONTACTS in 2014:

A spreadsheet of campaign contributions by 1-800-CONTACTS in Utah, provided by the Utah State Elections Office.

A spreadsheet of campaign contributions by 1-800-CONTACTS in Utah, provided by the Utah State Elections Office.

Roy Montclair, the interim general counsel for 1-800-CONTACTS, sent a statement to FOX 13:

"As part of our corporate citizenship, we have historically supported state and local elected officials including Attorney Generals in Utah and around the country.  The particular donation in question is consistent with prior practices and preceded the lawsuit that was filed over contact lens pricing in Utah."

A federal judge has refused to halt SB169 from going into effect. Court records show Bausch & Lomb, Alcon Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson filed an appeal with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.