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December 13, 2017

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Governor regrets ‘I’m Available Jones’ comment to lobbyists

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Rick Bowmer / AP

In this Thursday March 7, 2013, photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert makes remarks during a news conference, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday that he's disappointed in himself and his re-election campaign for offering to meet with lobbyists in exchange for campaign donations as he faces a tough battle for the GOP nomination this summer.

"As far as the optics and what's happened, I'm disappointed in myself and how we handled that," Herbert said. "That being said, when you're an average guy like me that has average means, you have to go out and ask people for money."

The Republican governor made the comments at a taxpayer-watchdog event Monday after The Salt Lake Tribune over the weekend published an audio recording of Herbert making the pitch to about two dozen lobbyists at a private social club in Salt Lake City last month.

"However we want to do this — if we need to have multiple meetings or we sit down and talk and you give us a check later or before. Whatever you would like to do," Herbert said, according to the recording. "I'll just say I'm available. I'm Available Jones."

The "Available Jones" comment is a reference to a character who was always available for a price that was featured in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip that ran from the early 1930s to late 1970s.

Herbert said Monday that he and his staff made it clear that there would be no quid pro quo and likened the meetings to a fundraiser where donors bring checks. "We didn't know we were being recorded— we thought we had all friends there," Herbert said.

He said all of his donations will be disclosed on campaign finance reports, but his campaign should have been more sensitive to the way the offer came across.

Herbert said the offer wasn't illegal or unethical.

Utah law makes it illegal for a public servant to solicit or receive any benefit in exchange for an action such as a vote or nomination. But nothing in state law prohibits offering meetings in exchange for fundraising checks, state elections director Mark Thomas said.

Thomas said the elections office, overseen by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is not investigating.

Cox, who is Herbert's running mate, can be heard on the audio recording warning that they need to be careful. "This isn't 'Come give us a check and we'll take care of your issue,' " Cox said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill did not return messages Monday afternoon inquiring about whether his office was investigating.

Daniel Burton, a spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, said the office does not comment about whether or not it is investigating any issue.

Herbert's two rivals for the governor's race this year — Republican Jonathan Johnson and Democrat Michael Weinholtz — both criticized the offer Monday.

"I think it's sickening," Johnson said. "I heard about it before. But when I listened to the tape last week, I was physically shaking because it's so offensive."

Weinholtz, who has loaned his own campaign about $1 million, said Herbert's offer is untoward and unprofessional.

Herbert said he's at a disadvantage because Weinholtz, former staffing company executive, and Johnson, chairman of the board at Overstock.com, can afford to loan or give large amounts of money to their own campaigns.

"That's good. I wish I was a wealthy person. I wish I could self-fund," Herbert said.

He criticized GOP rival Johnson for accepting the majority of his campaign cash from Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, whom Herbert referred to as a "sugar-daddy rich guy."

Johnson said he's not beholden to Byrne, and they disagree on several issues.

Herbert and Johnson will face off for the Republican nomination in a June 28 primary election. The winner will face Weinholtz on November 8.

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