Donation helps Romney get some skin in the presidential game

September 12, 2011

Running for president is an expensive process.

And being president is an aging experience.

Which makes the bond between Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Utah businessman Steve Lund look like a near-perfect union.

Two companies linked to Lund — a founder of Nu Skin, which specializes in anti-aging creams — have donated $2 million to Romney’s primary campaign. Sums like that would until recently have been the prize of the general election. But they are playing a new role in primaries this year, thanks to the evolution of committees known as super PACs.

At first blush, the bonds between Romney and Lund look more than skin deep. Both are successful businessmen who have turned small companies into billion-dollar enterprises — Romney by buying cheap companies and Lund by selling expensive skin creams. Both served in leadership positions of the Mormon church. And both are family men who have used their success to do good — Romney by building a career in public service and Lund by running a charity for African children.

But Lund, 57, is no Romney when it comes to public life. Friends say he doesn’t relish attention, and he did not return repeated requests for an interview.

Indeed, the seven-figure donation to help Romney’s campaign may be the loudest statement he’s ever made.

Friends say Lund eschews most of the trappings of wealth, although he collects religious paintings and owns a valuable original copy of the Book of Mormon. He is a fiscal and social conservative who has known Romney for at least a decade and lives in the university town of Provo, Utah, with his wife, Kalleen. His largest previous political contribution was a $20,000 check to the Republican National Committee in 2008, according to federal and state records.

“I’m sure he’s wishing this donation was not known to the world,” said Corey Lindley, a former Nu Skin executive and friend of Lund’s.

But Lund’s name now joins an elite list of big presidential donors, who in the past have been rewarded by ambassadorial posts and plum administration jobs.

Following the money

Public records do not show who owns the companies donating the funds. Lund is the registered agent for one; his son-in-law for the other. The Restore Our Future PAC backing Romney, which accepted the money, declined to comment.

The PAC disclosed the two March 31 $1 million donations linked to Lund from two companies, Eli Publishing and F8. In an interview last month, Lund told a Fox television affiliate in Utah that there was an accounting advantage to giving the money through Eli Publishing, a company he founded in 1997.

Utah state records show that F8 was started by Lund’s son-in-law, Jeremy Blickenstaff, a lawyer who has never given a campaign donation and who owns Blickenstaff’s Toy Store in Provo, which sells candy by the pound and rare varieties of soda. He did not return a phone call.

Advocates for transparency in elections have criticized the contributions for their obscurity, saying it would be a violation of election law if either man used the corporations simply as a pass-through to donate his own money.

“It certainly sounds like it was a contribution from Steven Lund,” said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center. “Voters have a right to know the true source of contributions to federal political committees. The courts have recognized for decades that voters can draw valuable clues from donors.”

Olympic ties

The booming skin care business has made Lund a very rich man. He was Nu Skin’s CEO for five years, owned $31.9 million in company stock and was paid $1.2 million in compensation last year, according to the company’s proxy statement.

One of the Nu Skin’s bestselling products, the Galvanic Spa System, uses a mild electric current to push cosmetics into the skin. Products used with the hand-held electric wand can cost $45 for one fluid ounce. Nu Skin says one of its product lines targets the genes that cause aging; the company’s chief science officer recently wrote a bestselling book called “The Aging Myth,” saying in a promotional video that “aging is not inevitable.”

The company he founded with three friends out of one of their homes in 1984 has grown to $1.5 billion in annual sales, occasionally inviting controversy.

Nu Skin, faced a series of investigations in the early 1990s into its business model and the financial and health claims made by its distributors. It paid a $1.2 million settlement to the Federal Trade Commission in 1994 over health claims made for its products and still operates under a consent decree with the commission. The possibility of tightened federal regulation could pose a threat to profits.

But friends dismissed any suggestion that Lund’s donations to Romney would be aimed at averting harmful federal regulations or investigations.

Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who worked for Nu Skin for over a decade, said that Lund has supported his campaigns but never asked for anything in return.

“He doesn’t have this big agenda strapped to his arm,” Chaffetz said.

A company spokeswoman said the donation didn’t involve Nu Skin.

Nu Skin’s founders previously agreed to a $20 million sponsorship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which Romney ran. The deal allowed Nu Skin to put the Olympic logo its products. Lund and his wife gave an additional $506,000 to the Salt Lake City Olympic committee through their personal foundation, according to tax records.

Product placement

Lund took a three-year break from Nu Skin beginning in 2003 to serve as president of the Atlanta mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to the mission’s Web site. A spokesman for the Mormon Church said Lund is now a member of the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy, one of the highest levels for a part-time church officer and in charge of churches for tens of thousands of Mormons.

Even in that position of power, it is Lund’s measured personality that draws attention --a trait that is reflected in several online interviews.

One video shows him perched on a stool on stage at a Nu Skin convention singing a song. He wears a dark suit, his top button undone and his tie loosened. He is a young 57, with his thin frame, dark hair and somewhat awkward bearing.

Which raises the question: Does he use Nu Skin products?

“Yeah, absolutely,” his friend Lindley says. “All the time.”

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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