SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Democratic Party (UDP) is calling out U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens (UT-4) for participating in a human trafficking policy and education summit hosted by the Malouf Foundation in Logan Saturday.
"I think that it's going to be really hard for any Utahn to take him seriously on sex trafficking when he's taking money from people that are accused of sex trafficking," said state Democratic Party Chair Jeff Merchant.
In a press release issued Friday evening, the UDP disclosed that the "Burgess 4 Utah" campaign received a donation from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Gaetz is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of human trafficking and exploitation of a minor.
"Two thousand dollars from Matt Gaetz is not a huge amount of money to return to show the people of Utah that not only does he believe that sex trafficking is wrong, but he's also willing to stand behind what he has to say," Merchant added. "And yet he hasn't bothered to do that."
A Federal Elections Commission filing confirms that the "Friends of Matt Gaetz" political action committee (PAC) donated $2,000 to Representative Owen's campaign in September of last year.
"I begin to question whether he really cares about this," Merchant said. "He's literally, as we speak, up in Logan today talking about sex trafficking while he has money given to him by someone who has been, you know, pretty seriously investigated — and continuing to be investigated — by the FBI for inappropriate behavior."
Although Gaetz donated to the Burgess 4 Utah campaign well before the allegations of sexual misconduct and sex trafficking were leveled at him, Merchant said Owens should return the money and condemn Gaetz's behavior.
"The fact that he's at a conference speaking on an issue that he's campaigned on, and he hasn't let the people know that he's doing that, it maligns not only him but all the people that are working on this conference and who really want to fix issues related to sex trafficking," he added.
Owens was confronted about the contribution at Saturday's summit, but declined to comment on the issue.
One reporter asked: "Yesterday, the Utah Democratic Party issued a press release asking you to return a $2,000 donation from Rep. Matt Gaetz in light of him being investigated for human trafficking and exploitation of a minor. Is that something that you are willing to do?"
Owens responded by saying: "Well, what I would like to do now is really talk about why we're here. We have a specific reason to be here today, and we have some remarkable frontline heroes that are here speaking about it. So, I'd really rather us stay focused. Stay focused on the fact that we are talking about human trafficking, sex trafficking, all the things that we all know is evil."
FOX 13 reached out to Owens' team for more response on the Gaetz contribution but has not heard back at the time this story was published.
The UDP press release also states that the Owens campaign is holding on to more than $42,000 of campaign funds donated above the legal limit of $2,800 per donor, which violates Federal Election Commission regulations.
"Rep. Owens took a lot of money — upwards of $130,000 — illegally, and you know, that's a problem that I think any Utahn has, but something that the Utah Democratic Party in particular has problems with because it doesn't create a fair playing field," Merchant added.