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9/30/2004

Industry Ties May Hurt Swallow

September 30, 2004

Roll Call
By Nicole Duran ROLL CALL STAFF

Republican John Swallow's ties to the dietary supplement industry, including his work on behalf of a company that is under federal investigation for deceptive advertising, could hurt him in his rematch with Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), political observers say.

But despite a trickle of recent newspaper articles about Swallow's connections to Basic Research, which makes diet pills and weight-loss creams, it has yet to become a major issue in the closely-watched campaign.

Swallow is a former in-house counsel to the Provo-based company, which is now the subject of an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for its marketing and advertising practices. Furthermore, he has relied heavily upon people connected to Utah's booming dietary supplement industry to fund his campaign.

Swallow, a former state Representative, has raised about $44,000 from industry executives as of June 30 and raked in another $100,000 or so at an industry fundraiser starring Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in August.

He received almost $60,000 from dietary supplement executives during his 2002 Congressional bid.

Swallow's campaign manager says it will be a sign of the Democrats' desperation if Matheson makes an issue of the Republican's connections to the industry.

Swallow finished finished just 1,600 votes behind Matheson in 2002, and Republicans hope he will do better with President Bush leading the ticket in a massive district that is strongly Republican.

But Swallow's ties to an industry that does not have the best reputation "clearly are hurting him as a candidate," said Mike Lyons, an associate political science professor at Utah State University.

An independent poll conducted Sept. 6-9 showed Swallow trailing Matheson by a surprising 31 points, 61 percent to 30 percent.

"These kinds of allegations never help," said Michael Zarkin, an assistant political science professor at Salt Lake City's Westminster College.

The FTC singled out several of the company's products, including the "Tummy Flattening Gel" and PediaLean" for scrutiny, saying the company made false claims in promoting them.

"Dramatic, unsubstantiated weight and fat-loss claims continue to tempt the overweight with new hope for a quick fix," Howard Beales, the FTC's consumer protection director, said in a June FTCstatement announcing the charges. "It's particularly disturbing, however, when marketers peddle such pills and potions for children without adequate substantiation."

Beales was referring to the company's claims that the stomach gel literally melts away fat and that the PediaLean pills would quickly and effectively help children and teens lose weight safely.

Initially, Basic Research told the FTC that part of Swallow's duties included reviewing ad copy for the products in question, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A company spokesman then backed away from that claim and said that such responsibilities would have been out of Swallow's scope.

"Idon't think there is any issue here," Swallow campaign manager Tim Garon said. He added that Swallow primarily worked in the human resources and contracting field.

Garon also said he sees no problem with Swallow accepting donations from individuals associated with the dietary supplement industry, including Basic Research.

"These people are business leaders in Utah ... who provide jobs," Garon said.

Whether his industry links become a campaign issue remains to be seen.

Neither the Matheson campaign nor any third-party groups have sought to paint it as a negative for Swallow so far, and Democratic campaign officials were reluctant to discuss the subject this week.

If Swallow is attacked on the issue, "we'll take it on a case-by-case basis," Garon said.

Swallow's campaign Web site shows that the industry expects him to promote its issues if he is elected to Congress.

"Our industry needs John Swallow in Congress," an invitation to the August fundraiser with Hastert reads. "John is a former dietary supplement professional, having served as general counsel for a dietary supplement company. ... Few in Congress have John's background and understanding of the [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994] and getting John elected is critical."

The invitation to the elite fundraiser held in the Salt Lake City home of industry executive Ron Gunnell also implored attendees to bend Hastert's ear.

"Today,Congress is considering modifications to the [act] which could undermine the entire industry, including shifting the 'burden of proof' from the Food and Drug Administration to supplement companies," it read. "Speaker Hastert needs our input to understand the importance of preserving the essential safeguards in" the act.

That law, according to Food and Drug Administration documents, freed dietary supplements from some regulations including "pre-market safety evaluations required of other new food ingredients or for new uses of old food ingredients."

Swallow's contributions from the dietary industry are not the only ones raising eyebrows.

He is also the biggest recipient of the political benevolence of a group of donors who run homes for troubled teens. One of those homes has been the subject of three separate abuse investigations by the state, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Robert Litchfield, who founded an association encompassing those schools, and his associates have given Swallow $118,000.

Another high-profile Swallow donor is accused of defrauding public schools out of millions of dollars. His partner already pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges.

Cameron Lewis and his wife were Utah's largest political donors in 2003 and 2004, the Tribune said, and gave $12,000 to Swallow's campaign.

Bo Harmon, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Swallow should not be penalized for the actions of others, especially when they are unrelated to the campaign.

"There is no accusation that he has done anything wrong," Harmon said. "None of his fundraising practices have been questioned."

Lyons, the Utah State professor, said that voters are no longer moved by allegations that a candidate accepted money from questionable donors. But he does believe that Basic Research's FTCtroubles could have a chilling effect on Swallow's campaign.

If the issue continues to percolate, national money earmarked for Swallow's race "might not find its way to Utah this time," Lyons predicted.

He noted that Matheson's surprisingly large lead in the polls could be partly attributable to the FTCinvestigation and disclosure of Swallow's donor's legal troubles.

"The revelations have coincided with Matheson widening his lead at a time when it should be getting closer," Lyons said.

Republicans insist that the race will tighten, noting that Matheson also enjoyed a large lead in 2002 two months before Election Day.

But Westminster College's Zarkin said Swallow may have a tougher time overcoming Matheson's advantage now.

"The only way to beat [incumbents] is to catch them in a scandal or raise lots of money,"Zarkin said. "If a challenger gets bad publicity, it doesn't help."