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APNewsBreak: Lawmaker accused of meeting with prostitute used taxpayer money for hotel

FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2017, photo, Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, votes on the House floor, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. The Utah House of Representatives is investigating whether a lawmaker who abruptly resigned used a state-issued cellphone and hotel room paid for with taxpayer money to arrange trysts with a prostitute. House Speaker Greg Hughes declined to comment on a Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, report in British newspaper the Daily Mail that former Republican Rep. Stanard twice hired a prostitute in 2017. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

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Allegations that a lawmaker had been trysting with a prostitute while the Utah Legislature was in session rocked the state’s politics. The former lawmaker who had previously pushed for stricter laws cracking down on prostitution went into hiding. His attorney refused comment. The House speaker washed his hands of the scandal, saying the lawmaker was no longer a member of the Legislature – and the prostitute was no longer talking, after having sold the story to the tabloid site dailymail.com.

Political reporter Michelle Price needed another way into the story, so she started asking questions around the capitol.

Price told officials that a public records request was forthcoming.

Was the lawmaker’s government-issued cell phone used to arrange the meetings with the prostitute? Was there a record of the calls? Of texts? She told authorities a public records request was forthcoming.

She made a key discovery while looking at the screen grabs of the texts in the tabloid story: The dates lined up with the legislative session. She knew the lawmaker from southern Utah didn’t commute to the Legislature and would be staying in hotels while in Salt Lake City. She knew lawmakers get reimbursed for hotel stays.

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Two Utah state representatives talk behind the empty chair of Rep. Jon Stanard on the House floor at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Feb. 7, 2018. Stanard, who had previously pushed for stricter laws on prostitution, resigned from the Legislature amid an investigation into use of a state-issued cellphone and hotel rooms paid for with taxpayer money for meetings he is accused of having with a prostitute. – AP Photo / Rick Bowmer

She started asking tougher questions. Was taxpayer money used to reimburse the lawmaker for hotel rooms where he met the prostitute?

Now she had the attention of officials in state government.

The House chief of staff told Price the office was beginning an investigation. Officials would probe whether the lawmaker used a state-issued cellphone and hotel rooms paid for with taxpayer money to meet with the prostitute.

That gave her enough to put a solid story on the wire beyond the thinly sourced report by dailymail.com, which AP credited for being the first to speak to the prostitute.

Next, Price reported the Utah elections office was reviewing the lawmaker’s campaign finance reports to see if he had used campaign money for his rendezvous.

Then came the APNewsBreak: Price exclusively reported that the lawmaker used taxpayer money to book at least two hotel rooms he is accused of using to meet with the prostitute.

Price’s work put The Associated Press ahead of other media in a story that was used widely by Utah members and major U.S. outlets including the New York Times,Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Even dailymail.com ultimately used the AP’s story.

For determination and a commitment to exploring all angles even when the main characters weren’t talking, Price wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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