Heated debate in the race for Utah Attorney General

Posted at 9:17 PM, Oct 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-22 11:00:52-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Right off the bat, things got heated.

"I really wanted this election to be about policies and position, but my opponent has chosen to go negative making baseless accusations attacking my integrity and my family name," incumbent Republican Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes began. "So in my defense, I decided to share some public reviews by his own clients."

The attorney general proceeded to read a few negative reviews posted online about his Democratic challenger, well-known criminal defense attorney Greg Skordas.

"I didn’t expect us to start off so negative," Skordas replied. "But since we are, I’m happy to move forward. I’m proud of the career I have, the reputation I have and that Utah lawyers, judges and police respect me and support me."

Throughout the debate, Skordas criticized Reyes' record and even jabbed that the attorney general "has never even prosecuted a parking ticket." Reyes traded barbs with his challenger and accused him of making false claims.

"Just because he brings this up 1,000 times doesn't make it true," Reyes said at one point.

The two presented stark differences in policies and positions. It was most evident as Skordas criticized Reyes for signing on to a lawsuit to challenge the Affordable Care Act. Reyes said the law is unconstitutional, but Skordas said he was ignoring his clients — the voters who approved Medicaid expansion in 2018.

"To join a lawsuit, especially during a pandemic, especially at a time when we have 200,000 Americans who have died, to take away health care, just because it’s politically expedient for you is senseless, it's wrong, it's unethical, it's immoral and the timing couldn’t possibly be worse," Skordas said.

"That’s fear-mongering, Greg, and you know that," Reyes shot back. "No one’s going to have their health insurance coverage taken away. The court’s not going to allow it."

"Of course they are!" Skordas said. "You do away with the Affordable Care Act there won’t be affordable care. Don’t say that."

"You're lying," Reyes said.

Asked about whether they supported Black Lives Matter, Skordas said: "Absolutely, and they support me."

"I support the statement. I don’t support the movement, per se," Reyes replied.

They disagreed over how to handle policing reforms, while both acknowledging some changes need to be made. Reyes was quick to point out he does not back "defunding the police" but supported more resources like mobile crisis teams and social workers. Skordas said he wanted more openness and transparency in policing, including more body cameras.

Questioned by reporters during the statewide televised debate about recent controversies in the Utah Attorney General's Office highlighted further differences. Reyes defended Banjo, the controversial artificial intelligence surveillance program that has faced scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats in the Utah State Legislature.

He insisted the program itself would be good for helping law enforcement and "a wonderful tool." Skordas said the program was probably illegal and "just wanted to spy."

Reyes was asked about his campaign taking money from members of the Kingston polygamous family. When it was revealed they were under investigation by the federal government his campaign initially said it was in escrow. Years later, the campaign admitted the money had already been spent.

"We didn’t even know that the Kingstons were under investigation until after they executed those warrants. My team made a mistake by trying to go above and beyond what was required. There was no requirement legally or ethically they needed to return money before an investigation," Reyes said.

Skordas was pressed about an incident when he was a prosecutor, where 27 people were released from jail because his office failed to file criminal charges in time. He also admitted it was a mistake.

"We couldn’t ethically and morally and legally hold 27 people in jail until we had our act together," he said. "They were subsequently taken into custody. And I’m happy to say this ben, not one of those 27 people harmed another while they were out."

The debate itself was not without controversy. The Utah Democratic Party sent a letter to the Utah Debate Commission, which puts on the event, complaining that Reyes had misled them about being unable to debate earlier in the month before ballots were mailed out to voters. The reason, Reyes' campaign said, was because he was going to be attending a funeral service for his father in Hawaii.

However, Reyes appeared at political events and fundraisers.

"The Utah Democratic Party believes that the Utah Debate Commission was either directly lied to by the Sean Reyes campaign or was directly involved in an effort to benefit Mr. Reyes's campaign," Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeffrey Merchant wrote. "Due to the Commission's failure to adhere to its strict policy of not giving candidates the ability to adjust, change or manipulate the dates of debates to benefit themselves, the UDP believes Mr. Skordas's campaign has been directly and irreparably harmed."

Asked about it after the debate, Skordas stopped short of saying Reyes lied.

"He attended campaign events on each of those nights. We showed the debate commission that. We said 'You guys got played. You got by played by this guy who’s doing everything he can to avoid a debate,'" Skordas told reporters.

The Utah attorney general told reporters following the debate he was not misleading anyone about his travel plans, which included coordinating with his large family.

"The date they had picked was one of several dates where we had a chance to go back and bury my dad on the Big Island of Hawaii with my mom," he said. "My team communicated to the debate commission and said 'Do you want to take the risk that we commit, but if this opens up, Reyes is going to go bury his dad.'"

Watch the entire debate here: