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Associated Press
Body cam video from Jan. 27, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — Some county leaders and employees question whether longtime elected Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott is suffering from health issues that may prevent him from doing his job.

Those workers, coupled with recent police reports and an investigation into Ott's office, raise concerns about Ott's health — and whether he is actually running his office or has the capability to do so.

The issue is not a new worry. County workers claim it's been a concern for years — even before Ott's 2014 re-election campaign. Some claim two appointed administrators in the recorder's office and others have covered for Ott's condition, allowing him to remain in office.

Ray Lancaster, union president for the Utah Alliance of Government Employees, said the situation is "heart-wrenching." But she fears those two administrators — one of which Ott hired just before the 2014 campaign — "hid" his condition and ran the campaign for him.

"The taxpayers should have known before they cast their ballots," she told the Deseret News. "(Ott) ran knowing his condition. I feel he's been taken advantage of by Julie (Dole) and Karmen (Sanone) for their personal gain. The employees are paying a huge price, and the taxpayers and residents of Salt Lake County are paying a huge price. It's not right."

Dole, Ott's deputy chief recorder, and Sanone, his governmental affairs liaison, deny that allegation.

As union president and an employee at the Salt Lake County Treasurer's Office for more than 24 years, Lancaster said she and others have watched Ott's condition deteriorate. "It makes me mad to see Karmen and Julie take advantage of his position and his mental state," she said.

Ott declined to comment to the Deseret News about his health, but his two right-hand administrators denied that anything is preventing Ott from fulfilling his duties as county recorder.

Sanone and Dole both dismissed allegations that they are operating the office for Ott.

“Gary knows what he’s doing,” Sanone said, laughing. “He’s involved every day. It’s his office; he runs it. We follow his direction.”

“In all the years I’ve known Gary, he’s governed the office the exact same way before I was in there and when I’m there now,” said Dole, whom Ott hired in March 2014, before his re-election campaign.

Elected officials with the county acknowledge that they have been worried about Ott's condition yet have had difficulty addressing the situation.

Concerns

The county recorder is responsible for overseeing the staff and budget of an office that provides public access to county records, including historical documents, property information, deeds, liens and maps.

Some of the issues that have raised concerns about Ott, 64, include:

  • Shortly before midnight on Jan. 26, Grantsville police found Ott stranded in freezing temperatures walking toward Rush Valley, away from his car, which was out of gas, had a dead battery and was parked in the middle of a lane of traffic. Police said Ott was cold and "completely unaware of anything" and "wasn't making any sense" when officers asked him questions, according to a Tooele County sheriff's report.

"I went over to Sgt. Jones' patrol vehicle and asked Gary some questions like what's your name, what's your wife's name, where do you live, why are you out here? Gary knew his name but that was the only question that he knew. None of the other questions he could answer," the report states.

A Grantsville police report said the temperature was 19 degrees and Ott was not dressed for the conditions. "One of the deputies asked Gary what he was doing out by Rush Valley. Gary said he was with his people and vegetables," according to the report.

In response to questions about the police reports, Sanone said: "(Ott) had been stranded in the cold for a very long time. He was suffering from hypothermia."

  • Lisa Westover, who worked in the county recorder's office for 20 years before leaving a year ago to work in the assessor's office, said during the past three years Ott has struggled with his memory and at times would "wander" the county halls as if lost.

She also said she once saw him try to pay for his lunch at the county cafeteria with a library card.

"I feel sorry for him," she said. "I don't think anybody deserves … whatever he's getting. It's taken its toll on him. You used to be able to hold a conversation with him. You can't anymore."

  • In an interview with the Deseret News at the Capitol this week, Ott would not answer questions about his office's legislative priorities without turning to Sanone, who answered for him.

When asked how many years he's been in office, Ott also looked to Sanone, who said 15 years. Ott then answered, "15 years."

When the Deseret News asked Ott if he'd been having trouble with his memory, Sanone said, "We're not going to respond" because she said it was a personal question.

When asked why Ott wasn’t responding directly to the reporter’s questions about his memory, Ott said, “There’s reasons I can’t do things, so that’s what it’s going to be."

When the reporter asked Ott why he couldn’t explain why he couldn’t talk to the reporter, he replied, “Because I can’t.”

  • During a Salt Lake County Council budget meeting on Aug. 11, 2015, Dole presented an overview presentation of the recorder’s office, requesting three new employees to meet workload and reduce overtime requirements.

Ott was present during the presentation, but Dole answered all of the council’s questions, according to an audio recording of the meeting. When Wilson addressed Ott directly to ask for his opinion, Ott uttered something inaudible. Dole then interjected and answered for him.

'Sensitive matter'

Lancaster said some county employees are concerned that Ott isn't fit to continue serving as an elected official. She said "everyone knows" about his alleged issues.

"The council knows. The mayor's office knows. The district attorney's office knows," she said. "But there's nothing that can be done."

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she's been "concerned about Ott's health over the past year."

"I’ve talked to his deputy recorder about my concerns on more than one occasion," she said in a prepared statement. "As we’ve consulted with the district attorney’s office on this sensitive matter, we’ve been told that per state law, the county council does not have the ability to pursue a course of action under these circumstances. Mr. Ott was elected by the people of Salt Lake County and can only be removed from office by the people of Salt Lake County in this instance."

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to talk specifically about Ott because county officials are his clients, but he said according to state law, elected officials cannot be recalled unless they commit high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance while in office.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said he, too, has been aware of questions about Ott. "Some employees brought to our attention some concerns they had about six months ago," he said.

The mayor's office referred the matter to an external investigation in October. The investigation, by Holland and Hart, a private law firm, concluded it found "no violations of county policy," the mayor said.

According to the investigation report obtained by the Deseret News through a public records request, investigators found no violation of county policies but noted there "clearly is some dysfunction in the recorder's office."

"For example, the management witnesses in the department either said that Mr. Ott was functioning fine, was affected by drugs he was taking for a very serious case of shingles, or was affected by a broken hand," the report states. "Non-management employees saw the situation quite differently and gave specific examples of an apparent diminished capacity."

Investigators concluded that "management is perceived as keeping a secret" and "regardless of the accuracy of the perception of management or non-management, the gap is problematic."

The report said any perception that Ott's "capacity is diminishing" is a "matter within the discretion of the elected office."

When asked if there's anything in county policy addressing a situation when an elected official becomes ill, McAdams said, "No, there's not."

"I don't want to comment on (Ott's) health," the mayor said. "I don't know what his health concerns are, so I don't believe it's appropriate for me to comment. That's his matter, and whether he's able to perform the functions of his office is something for the public to assess."

The mayor added: “If the council wanted to look at other measures, I would leave that to their prerogative.”

County Councilman Richard Snelgrove declined to comment.

County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson said the council has "limited oversight over independent elected officials, including our recorder." She said on a few occasions over the county's last budget cycle, she "became aware that there may be some concerns regarding (Ott's) health."

"I am very appreciative of the lengthy years of service of (Ott) and want to be very compassionate, yet I want to ensure the citizens in Salt Lake County are well served," Wilson said. "It's my expectation that each elected official can come before the council, work with the council, and be able to address the questions asked by the council.

"In this past budget, I came to find that the recorder's office has been running generally well, yet (Ott) himself did not come before us to meet those expectations."

Personal relationship?

Ott earned $179,746 in salary and benefits in 2015, according to Salt Lake County documents. In the same year, Dole — his chief deputy — made more than him, $179,953 in salary and benefits. Sanone collected $65,947 in salary and benefits.

Dole dismissed allegations that she and Sanone are "taking advantage" of Ott to remain in their positions. “I left a higher paying job to come to this at his request. I would still be at my last job if it was about making money,” said Dole, who previously worked in real estate sales for MediaOne.

Sanone was hired after Ott's campaign at the end of 2014.

“I’m not doing it for the money,” she said. “It’s a job I like, and it’s a job I’m good at.”

After Ott was stopped by police in Grantsville, officers took him to a hospital. Dispatchers contacted Sanone, who responded to the hospital to pick up Ott. The report lists Sanone as Ott's girlfriend.

When asked whether she is Ott's girlfriend, she declined to answer.

"You can ask me about my qualifications for the job. That's my personal life. I don't have to respond to that and I'm not going to," she said.

The Holland and Hart report noted the recorder's office employee who filed a complaint "takes offense to the fact that Mr. Ott comes in only a couple days a week and seems diminished in his mental capacity but the situation is hidden by his always being accompanied by the chief deputy or his secretary (who is, unfortunately, his girlfriend or fiance)."

Salt Lake County Human Resources Director Michael Ongkiko said there was an investigation of the relationship between Ott and Sanone last year, but there were no findings of any violations of the county’s nepotism policy.

According to the county’s ordinance on nepotism: "No county officer or employee shall directly or indirectly supervise a relative in any county position.”

When asked if there’s anything in the county’s policy regarding boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, Ongkiko said, “Per this ordinance, not much can be done.”

“We do investigate if they are actually living together and could be common law,” he said. “But as far as I know, the very few investigations since I’ve been here, which is about three years, there hasn’t been any violations of this."

Not a 'detail leader'

Ott was first appointed in 2001 and was re-elected to serve a fourth term beginning in January 2015, which would run until the end of 2018.

Dole said she hasn't noticed anything preventing Ott from working effectively as the county recorder.

"If he's having some issues like that, I don't see that it's impacting the office," Dole said. She noted that he's not a "detail leader."

"He's always been a global leader. He always just hires competent people to take care of what he wants," she said.

Kenneth Richmond, the recorder's division administrator, said Ott "does his part," which mostly consists of attending meetings and giving direction.

"He's never been hands-on," Richmond said.

Dole said if Ott is out of the office, she communicates with him.

"In the role as chief deputy, with his authorization, I can be him, so to say," she said.

When asked if Ott is coming to work every day, Dole said, “Not every day,” but said he attends meetings and gives oversight as needed.

Re-election campaign

Westover said Ott hasn't seemed like himself for at least three years, even before his 2014 re-election campaign when he fired his former chief deputy recorder of seven years, Tonya Keller, in March 2014 before hiring Dole.

Dole and Sanone helped run Ott's campaign that year. Sanone spoke in place of Ott, the Republican nominee, at several community "Meet the Candidates" events, according to a video search of the events.

Ott was not present at a Sept. 17, 2014, event hosted by the Utah Alliance of Government Employees. When Sanone approached the microphone, she said, “I’m still hopeful Gary may show up, but I’m here now,” according to a video.

On Sept. 18, Sanone spoke on behalf of Ott at a Magna Chamber of Commerce event, saying he was “coincidentally at another chamber luncheon,” according to a video uploaded by the Magna Times.

Sanone told the Deseret News she spoke for Ott because “when you do a countywide campaign, you have more meetings than you can go to. He was at some. I was at some.” She also said she attended events that were held during the day so Ott would not campaign during work hours.

When asked if she and Dole ran Ott’s campaign for him, Sanone laughed.

“Gary always runs his own campaigns,” she said. “He gives direction. He puts things together. He coordinates everything."

Dole also said she “certainly helped” but didn’t run his campaign.

“I did most of his social media, but no. He doesn’t allow other people,” Dole said. “He went out and did his own signs, except for a couple volunteers that took some and put them up.”

No 'concrete indicators'

Westover said a climate of fear of "retaliation" has kept county workers from speaking out about concerns over Ott's health, because "every time you'd go up to personnel, they'd say: 'He's an elected official. He can do what he wants.'"

She said she thinks it's important for the public to be aware of the concerns.

"The people need to know, for the kind of salary he's making, he should be able to fulfill some duties," Westover said. "That's a lot of taxpayers' money who don't know the situation."

Lancaster said as union president, she's represented several employees on matters involving concerns about the recorder's office but claims human resources would "side" with Dole each time.

Dole said she suspects "disgruntled workers” who have not liked the way the recorder’s office has been run and "employees that don't get their way" are making allegations.

She said that while there have been investigations into matters within the recorder’s office, “everything has been unfounded.”

“The allegations have gone forward, they’ve brought lawyers in, they’ve interviewed the staff and everything has been without merit,” she said, adding that it's “frustrating” because it seems like “somebody’s just trying to smear (Ott’s) name.”

Lancaster said something more than an investigation needs to occur.

"I think the Republican Party needs to step up and do something about it. They knew when he ran for this last election that he was getting bad," Westover said. "I hold the Republican Party responsible. They have had whispers for a long time and chose to ignore it."

But Suzanne Mulet, chairwoman of the Salt Lake County GOP, said she was not aware of "anything signficant" concerning Ott before a "couple of weeks ago," when she was informed of the police incident in Tooele County.

"Prior to that, all of my interactions with (Ott) were fine. There was nothing out of the ordinary," she said.

Mulet added that her role as chairwoman "does not involve removing or questioning any of our elected officials" and that there have been no "concrete indicators" that Ott wasn't carrying out his role.

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"I don't always believe everyone's word for things," she said, adding that even if there were concrete concerns, "it's not our position" to ask for an elected official's resignation.

When asked if voters should be made aware of concerns that their elected officials may be unable to serve, she said "the responsibilities for that lie elsewhere."

"Who exactly that relies upon is not for me to say," she said. "I'm literally not in a position to. It's not my role."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1; DNewsPolitics