SALT LAKE CITY — A UTA trustee said Thursday he's still waiting to hear if a $10,000 campaign contribution to the board's vice chairwoman from a company with ties to a contractor on a major transit project violated a conflict of interest policy.
"I've never questioned whether it's legal. But we have a clear board policy that says board members should not receive gifts of value," the trustee, North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, said. "I think we need to discuss whether it's a serious policy."
He called on the Utah Transit Authority board's vice chairwoman, Sherrie Hall Everett, to give back the contribution to her race for Provo mayor from SUNROC, a Spanish Fork-based construction materials and building services company.
"Absolutely not. I didn't violate anything and they're not buying my vote. They're not buying my influence," Everett said, suggesting the concerns raised by Taylor were coming from her political opponents in the mayor's race.
SUNROC shares the same parent company, Clyde Companies, with W.W. Clyde, which has a nearly $102 million contract awarded in 2015 for work on the Provo-Orem bus system known as BRT and related construction, according to UTA.
In a letter dated Wednesday, UTA general counsel Jayme Blakesley responded to a request for a review of the contribution to Everett but did not refer to the portion of the conflict of interest policy that deals with gifts.
It states UTA board members "shall not solicit or accept directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, food, lodging, loan, or other item of value" if they have, or appear to have, influence over actions affecting the donor.
Instead, Blakesley said in the letter he advised Everett she was not in violation of prohibitions against accepting gifts in the state Public Officers' and Employees' Ethics Act because there's an exception for political campaign contributions.
She "indicated she wanted to err on the side of caution," Blakeley wrote.
"Because the campaign contributions could create the appearance of a conflict in the future," he said Everett agreed to recuse herself from voting on matters affecting SUNROC or W.W. Clyde.
Taylor followed up with an email to Blakesley asking for what he said was "central to the entire concern" to be addressed, whether the board's "more restrictive" policy was violated.
Blakesley was out of the office Thursday and not available for comment.
Nichol Bourdeaux, UTA vice president of external relations, said in a statement to the Deseret News the agency "recognizes that personal and business interests, like campaigning for public office, may create conflicts with service on UTA's board."
Bourdeaux said the policy "acknowledges this possibility and establishes a remedy," disclosure and recusal, "assuring the public that board members will not participate in or vote on issues in which they have potential or actual conflicts of interests."
She said the policy "was not intended to disadvantage elected officials who are appointed to the board while serving in public office" and that Evert "was within her legal right to accept the donation in question under state law."
Everett said she understood that the board policy referenced the law exempting campaign contributions.
"Because it doesn't apply to the campaign contribution, then I really don't even need to recuse myself. But I want to avoid the appearance, too, so I am going above and beyond," she said.
Told the UTA board policy on conflicts of interest does not mention the state Public Officers' and Employees' Ethics Act, Everett said she was relying on the legal advice she received from Blakesley.
Taylor is "splitting hairs on this. If the board wants to come back and address the policy, there's a process to do that," she said. "As interpreted by the general counsel and the legal team, I have followed the rules."
State Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the co-chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force that is considering an overhaul of UTA, said the issue being raised "erodes confidence" in the agency.
He referred to UTA's nonprosecution agreement with the federal government that requires the agency to cooperate with an ongoing investigation into transit projects and submit to up to three years of federal monitoring.
"I think having the (U.S. Department of Justice's) oversight indicates they still have things they need to do," Harper said, citing "problems with personnel and other questionable activities" over the years.
He said UTA must "completely review everything that they are doing to make sure what they are doing now and in the future is transparent and aboveboard and in the best interest of their clients and renders the public trust they've had in the past."
Taylor, who has sparred with Everett and other trustees since joining the board earlier this year in what he describes as a watchdog role, said UTA's history makes it even more important that the policy be followed.
"For me, where UTA is in public perception, the past ethics problems, I think we do need to hold ourselves to a higher standard in not taking campaign contributions from anyone doing business with UTA," he said.
Everett said as a board member, she has "absolutely zero influence" on the awarding of contracts by UTA. "This is a tempest in a teapot because we're so afraid. And yet we're doing the exact thing the law requires us to do, to disclose."