On the same day Gov. Gary Herbert sat down with a coal company that complained regulators were taking too long to issue a strip-mining permit, his campaign aides were cashing a $10,000 check from the company.
The donation from Alton Coal Development LLC was revealed in a Jan. 11 filing by Herbert's political-action committee.
Alton's pleas did not go unanswered. At the September meeting, state regulators agreed to fast-track a decision for Alton to operate the mine near Panguitch, despite opposition from residents.
Herbert's office said Wednesday he never ordered regulators to give their approval and didn't know about the company's donation.
A Panguitch shop owner characterized the payment as a blatant effort by the coal developer to influence a decision by the Herbert administration.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out," said Bobbi Bryant, owner of the gift and coffee shop Bronco Bobbi's, who said she was opposed to the strip mine because the operation would bring heavy truck traffic through the small tourist town about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City.
"There's a lot more people down here against it than officials want you to know," she said.
A Utah regulator who was in the meeting with Alton and Herbert has said the governor never instructed him to make any particular decision and instead inquired, 'When do you think you will get it out?'
John Baza, director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said he then decided to hurry things up.
Bryant said Baza's regulators showed up in Panguitch days later "saying they felt pressure to get some reports or inspections done for the approval."
Environmental groups are seeking to block the mining, saying the strip mine would raise dust and foul air quality 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, which is known for its magnificent views, pristine air and sparkling night skies. Bryce Canyon's superintendent also has objected.
The decision by regulators is under review by a state board.
A 33-page memo, obtained by The Associated Press, said the result of Alton's meeting with the Republican governor was to fast-track a decision by regulators. The memo was written by Priscilla Burton, a chief environmental scientist for the division, who noted regulators had a full year to make a decision.
"However, the applicant had an audience with the Governor on Sept. 17, 2009, with the result that the permitting process will end on October 15, 2009," Burton wrote. The mining approval was issued four days later.
While campaign records indicate Alton made its $10,00 donation on the same day it met with Herbert, the check actually arrived four days earlier and was deposited in a bank on the day of the meeting, Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling clarified Wednesday.
Welling reiterated that Herbert "did not direct" anyone in the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to "take any particular action with regard to Alton Coal Development's project." Nor was Herbert aware of the donation, and he did not accept the check at the meeting, Welling said.
Herbert "is a longtime supporter of energy development in the state of Utah, particularly coal development and clean coal technology," Welling told the AP in one of a series of e-mails Wednesday. "As such, it should not be surprising that a company such as Alton Coal would choose to support Governor Herbert."
Welling also sought to clarify that neither Herbert nor anybody in the governor's office was aware of a check Alton sent to a campaign office across town.
"Fundraising is entirely a function of the campaign. Those of us who staff and schedule meetings are unaware of who is contributing or how much they've contributed," she said.