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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Blurring the Record in Utah

A group supporting Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch claims in a TV ad that a Republican challenger “voted to allow state employees to double dip, collecting a pension and a pay check.” That’s a gross exaggeration. Hatch’s opponent, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, actually authored a bill in the state Senate to ban double dipping.

The ad’s claim is based on the fact that the bill later was amended to allow the practice to continue on a smaller, more restricted scale. Liljenquist voted for the modified legislation, which became law — saving taxpayers as much as $10.5 million over time.

The ad also claims that Liljenquist voted to exempt himself and others from public records requests. That’s true as far as it goes. But the ad fails to mention that Liljenquist later voted to repeal the law.

Double Spinning

Freedom Path, the group behind the claim, displays in its ad the words, “Liljenquist voted to allow state employees to double dip, collecting a pension and a pay check,” while a narrator makes the same point with slightly different language. The ad fails to tell the whole story, which involves Liljenquist actually leading the charge to change Utah’s pension system and end double dipping. A little background: The economic downturn of the late 2000s resulted in a $6.5 billion shortfall (see page 3) in Utah’s state employee retirement system. A legislative audit in 2009 found that rehired retirees working full time could cost the state $897 million (see page i) over the next 10 years. As a state senator, Liljenquist authored legislation to lessen Utah’s long-term contributions to retirement funds and to ban double dipping.

During the legislative process, Liljenquist’s original bill (see line 23) to ban double dipping was amended (see lines 364 to 416) to allow the practice to continue on a smaller, more restricted scale. Retired state workers could return to work and still collect a pension after waiting one year. But those employees had two choices: They could receive pension payments without any additional credit to their retirement, or they could delay pension payments while earning more credit. The legislation also eliminated an expensive perk (see page ii) that returning retirees were receiving: The state was required to contribute to  employees’ personal 401(k) plans using the same rate the employees received before retirement, which matched as much as 39 percent of their salary.

The final legislation, which Liljenquist supported, became law. A legislative analysis projected that the new law could save the state as much as $10.5 million in the long run. Liljenquist’s efforts won praise from the Wall Street Journal and Governing Magazine, which named him one of its Public Officials of the Year in 2011. One of Freedom Path’s glossy mailers (using a photo of an ice cream cone) similarly misleads. But in fine print, the mailer at least acknowledges that Liljenquist introduced a bill to end double dipping before supporting the final legislation.

Half the Record

The TV ad also claims that “Liljenquist voted to exempt himself and other politicians from many public records requests.” That’s true as far as it goes, but there’s more to the story. Following public outcry, the state senator backtracked and voted to repeal the measure. The law would’ve exempted from public records requests various communications within state government, such as voice mails and text messages as well as the financial information of potential government appointees. Liljenquist joined many of his colleagues in voting for the measure. Then, in the following days and weeks, he and other lawmakers called for its repeal before successfully voting to do so.

We have no quibbles with the ad’s claim that Liljenquist missed 24 percent of votes in the state Senate in 2011 — a calculation provided by Utah Data Points, a nonpartisan blog created by an assistant political science professor at Brigham Young University. But we do take issue with Liljenquist’s explanation on his campaign website for missing so many votes. He refers to a Utah Data Points analysis that found legislative leaders missed more votes than non-leaders. But Liljenquist held no leadership position during 2011 (see pages 9 and 10). Even so, Liljenquist missed nearly twice as many votes as the average leader.

Freedom Path vs. FreedomWorks

Freedom Path is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, issue-advocacy organization. It can raise unlimited amounts of money and does not have to disclose its donors. The pro-Hatch group is not to be confused with FreedomWorks for America, another 501(c)(4) group that supports Liljenquist and other tea party-aligned candidates. The group produced its own misleading ads against Hatch, which we fact-checked in March.

Liljenquist may have a shot at ruining the six-term senator’s plan to secure the Republican nomination for Senate before Utah’s June primary. Hatch must win 60 percent of the delegate votes at the state Republican convention on April 21 to bypass the primary. But a recent poll indicated the senator may lack the support he needs. If he fails, Hatch will face off in the primary against the candidate with the second largest amount of delegate votes, which likely would be Liljenquist.

Based in Salt Lake City, Freedom Path includes on its board Nevada lobbyist J. Scott Bensing, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former chief of staff to Nevada Sen. John Ensign. So far this year, the group has spent $300,000 on TV ads and mailers, which have supported Hatch as well as Mitt Romney and Utah Sen. Mike Lee while attacking Liljenquist and other Hatch rivals. Bensing also is the treasurer for Freedom Path Action Network, a sister super PAC, which had $2 in cash on hand and owed $500 to a Dallas law firm in January, according to a year-end report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Freedom Path is planning more campaigns in Nevada, Texas and a few other states during this election cycle, according to Roll Call. The group provided us with a list of citations for the claims made in the ad attacking Liljenquist, but it failed to return calls or emails seeking further comment.

— Ben Finley

Footnote: We learned of Freedom Path’s ad through an intern in the Liljenquist campaign who asked that we withhold his name. We welcome tips and leads from anyone — even those connected to campaigns. But the reporting is our own. We still make our own judgments and apply the same standards of fairness and accuracy. We encourage readers to submit claims to the Spin Detectors website, through which we ask our readers to help us monitor political claims and campaigns across the country.