The Provo Papers

Utah TV reporter tracks down two million-dollar Romney donors

A couple weeks ago, NBC News’s national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff broke a story—“a bombshell-of-a-scoop” termed Mother Jones; a political “mystery” said many others—that brought attention to the changed, and in this case, shady nature of new campaign finance laws. Isikoff reported:

A mystery company that pumped $1 million into a political committee backing Mitt Romney has been dissolved just months after it was formed, leaving few clues as to who was behind one of the biggest contributions yet of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The existence of the million-dollar donation—as gleaned from campaign and corporate records obtained by NBC News—provides a vivid example of how secret campaign cash is being funneled in ever more circuitous ways into the political system.

Isikoff, of course deserves the plaudits he got for breaking the story. But another reporter—of lower profile and toiling away at a more local level—also deserves kudos for investigative work into the matter.

While the national media widely reported Isikoff’s revelation, Max Roth, a weekend anchor and political reporter at Salt Lake City-based KTSU Fox 13 News was on the trail of two other mysterious million-dollar donations to Restore our Future, the same SuperPAC supporting Mitt Romney.

Because Romney is a subject of “intense interest” in Utah for his role in the 2002 Winter Olympics and ties to the Mormon Church, Roth took a close look at the fundraising reports that came out earlier this month about Romney’s SuperPAC. He went to the FEC website—as only a reporter would, he calls the site “fun” because of all the original documents—and was struck by the “funny” nature of some of the filings.

Roth, who has been with KTSU for nine years, was first struck by how short the list of donors was. “In past presidential elections there were limitations in place so you had a list of thousands of names. Now to come up with a figure like $12.2 million, you have a list that’s 90 people long.”

Roth scanned the list for Utah donors, and noticed that there were two companies from Provo that he had never heard of. Even more intriguing, the companies—Eli Publishing and F8 LLC—were listed as having the same address and had given $1 million donations on the same day.

Roth says it took him a few seconds to realize—or believe—what he was seeing because commas had not been inserted into the donation figures. “I had to count the number of zeros behind the one a few times. I thought, ‘Wait a minute that looks longer than $100,000 and $10,000 donations. Is that a million dollars?’ In political reporting, a $1 million dollar donation is kind of unheard of, but now in this post-Citizens United world it’s a whole different game.”

He noted his findings on that night’s newscast but, intrigued, he kept investigating. “These are companies no one has ever heard of; I actually went to to see what they had published. They had published absolutely nothing. The company didn’t exist anywhere but state of Utah incorporation records.”

In examining the incorporation records, Roth saw the company had been created by Steve Lund, the former CEO of NuSkin, a big nutriceutical company. He discovered F8 was founded by a lawyer, Jeremy Blickenstaff, who had connections to NuSkin.

Having seen the address, Roth decided the only way someone would talk to him about the donations was to show up. But when he arrived at the office building in downtown Provo, the listed room number did not appear to exist, either physically or on the building directory. He went into a suite on the same floor, where independent accountants leased space. They weren’t aware of the companies, but the address should have been inside their suite.

Roth did manage to track down Lund for an interview. While Lund wouldn’t talk on camera, he spoke on the record and said he was not trying to hide the donation—he said he had founded Eli to publish a book a few years earlier—nor the fact that he supported Romney. Blickenstaff did not respond to Roth’s calls about the matter.

While there are similarities, Roth is quick to distinguish his story from Isikoff’s. For one thing, Lund, the Provo donor, was far easier to find. “It was pretty clear where this money was coming from, and he wasn’t trying to hide the provenance of the donation. And yet, why do you give—it seems like it’s as easy to write a check from your own checking account as from one that exists only on paper.”

For Roth, a longtime political reporter, the investigation offered a “tutorial” on this year’s new, freer era of campaign finance. While he knew the Citizens United case had changed things, Roth says that “until looking into this and talking with a lawyer that specializes in election law, I assumed there were restrictions on what PACs could do.”

He continues, “To learn there are no restrictions except they cannot be connected to a campaign, that this PAC can set itself up and completely say ‘Vote for Romney, don’t vote for this person.’ It’s such a different world.” He expects his knowledge of the new national campaign finance landscape will come in handy this year.

“It’s going to be so interesting to watch see how this affects the whole process. When you think about this primary season and that there’s this $12.2 million war chest that is supposedly independent but that can swoop in at any critical moment and flood a market with advertising—it’s fascinating.”

Roth suspects deep knowledge about the new campaign finance environment is patchy among local reporters. Though he says KTSU, like local television stations “everywhere” lack the resources to do this sort of investigative reporting often, he credits his bosses for being supportive of such endeavors whenever they can.

“With the economic pressures these days, we have a small staff trying to put on several hours of news programming a day,” says Roth, who should be commended for his own commitment. “Investigative stories like this involve a whole lot of time at home. But I think that is the life of reporter anyway.”

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.