SALT LAKE CITY — The up to three years of federal monitoring of the Utah Transit Authority required under its nonprosecution agreement signed this week with the U.S. Attorney's Office is "unprecedented," a state official said Thursday.
"I've been here for 40 years and we saw this happen one other time, years ago," Legislative Auditor General John Schaff said, referring to court-ordered scrutiny of the state's child welfare system for more than a decade ending in 2007.
But Schaff said in this instance, UTA agreed to the federal oversight mandated in the agreement, which spells out that by complying and cooperating with the investigation into transit and development projects, the agency won't be prosecuted.
"That is unprecedented," the legislative auditor said. "I'd say that's quite unusual."
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, also called the federal monitoring unusual. Harper has looked at ways to restructure the UTA board after a 2014 legislative audit identified financial and ethical issues at the agency.
"It's really getting into stuff that normally should be within a state or local jurisdiction purview. They obviously felt there was a need to do it. I don't understand it," Harper said. "It does give us pause."
UTA general counsel Jayme Blakesley said the agency welcomes having a federal monitor, who must be mutually agreed upon by both UTA and the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah within 30 days.
He said UTA is "excited to have it underway because it's one thing for us to say we have reforms in place and we're complying, and it's another thing to have an independent, third party come in and review and be able to say the same thing."
The price tag for hiring the monitor and any needed staff will be picked up by UTA, according to the agreement. Blakesley said there is no estimate yet of how much that will cost.
Harper said he expects federal monitoring will help give lawmakers serving on an interim transportation governance task force "clarity" about UTA's reforms as they ready recommendations due in December.
The task force, charged with examining how all transportation-related entities are overseen, will consider whether the quasi-government UTA should be brought under state control, Harper said.
"We need to look at everything as we go through the discussions," Harper said, including whether there should be an umbrella organization over all transportation entities.
UTA's federal supervision needs to be considered in context, Blakesley said, noting "a lot of the actions and things that were of most concern at UTA occurred between 2008 and 2014," and since then, changes have been made.
"I think if you had come in at that time and asked, is a monitor necessary to ensure compliance, perhaps the answer would be yes," he said, but now, the monitor is there "more as a check and balance."
The agreement was announced Tuesday and a day later, criminal charges were filed against former UTA board member Terry Diehl for allegedly misrepresenting in bankruptcy court more than $1 million from a Draper FrontRunner station project.
An initial court appearance for Diehl, a high-profile real estate developer in the state who resigned from the UTA board in 2011 over controversy surrounding the project, has been set for 2 p.m. on May 11.
His attorney, Peter Stirba, issued a statement Thursday saying Diehl's case is a serious one "that will be intensely litigated. The only appropriate comments about this case should be made in a courtroom."
Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber, said there may be more to come from the ongoing investigation. UTA is turning over thousands of documents to investigators as a result of the agreement.
"The case is still under investigation, and as John said at the press conference Tuesday, this is not the end of the story," Rydalch said.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy