Former UTOPIA executive intends to sue West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder over story

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 12:58 p.m. MDT

Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, poses outside his office in West Valley Tuesday, November 8, 2011. (Brian Nicholson) Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, poses outside his office in West Valley Tuesday, November 8, 2011. (Brian Nicholson)

SALT LAKE CITY — The attorney for a former UTOPIA executive has informed the municipal fiber-optic network and West Valley City of his intent to file a defamation lawsuit against them over a news story Mayor Mike Winder wrote under a fake name.

Attorney Steve S. Christensen said an article written by Winder under the pen name Richard Burwash and published on KSL.com on May 1 contains inaccurate statements about his client, Chris Hogan, and that Hogan "has suffered harm because of them."

Hogan also alleges that UTOPIA, West Valley City and Winder conspired to make public a series of sealed court documents in an effort to damage Hogan's reputation.

Winder also will be named in the lawsuit, Christensen said. Because UTOPIA and West Valley City are public entities, they have 90 days to refute the claims before they're filed with the court.

Dave Shaw, general counsel for UTOPIA, called the allegations "patently false." Winder declined to comment Thursday on the pending legal action.

Last week, Winder admitted to Deseret News editors that he created a false identity to write news stories about West Valley City through Deseret Connect, a freelance contributor network through which stories are submitted to its media partners.

The mayor previously pretended to be Burwash to get stories published in the Oquirrh Times, a weekly newspaper covering West Valley, Magna and Kearns. The Salt Lake Tribune also published a photograph credited to Burwash.

Since admitting to the deception, Winder has resigned his position as director of public affairs for The Summit Group, a Salt Lake City-based marketing and communications firm.

On Wednesday, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency put its professional relationship with The Summit Group "on hiatus" as a result of the Winder/Burwash incident.

The May 1 story was one of four Burwash articles published through Deseret Connect. In it, Winder — as Burwash — wrote that Hogan was being accused of extortion, citing court documents the author claimed were unsealed on April 27.

Court records show that the documents remained sealed until May 16, more than two weeks after Burwash submitted the article through Deseret Connect. That raised questions among defense attorneys about how Burwash obtained his information.

Jacob Hancock, an editor for Deseret Connect, said he was contacted by a private investigator looking for Burwash about a week after the UTOPIA story was posted on KSL.com.

Hancock said that was about the same time Burwash informed him via email he was moving to London and wouldn't be able to continue writing for Deseret Connect — at least for the near future.

Winder says he wasn't aware that attorneys were trying to locate Burwash when he made up the story about the freelance writer moving to London.

Winder later said the reason he shipped off Burwash and stopped using the pen name was that he learned from Deseret Media Companies President and CEO Mark Willes that the company didn't approve of the practice.

Still, Burwash's Deseret Connect account was active until at least June 5, when he informed editors he hoped to "resume some sort of coverage of the various local (political) campaigns in the fall."

Two days later, Winder was among those subpoenaed by the defense in connection with the lawsuit in 3rd District Court. Christensen said a subpoena also was sent out on Burwash, "but that was a dead end. We couldn't find him."

Christensen said he didn't know Burwash was actually Winder until the mayor went public with the news last week.

Shaw said that's also when UTOPIA found out about Winder's double identity, which he says makes Hogan's claims of conspiracy against UTOPIA invalid.

"At the time, we had no knowledge that Mayor Winder was Mr. Burwash," he said.

Shaw said he shared the court documents with UTOPIA stakeholders, including Winder, as West Valley City is the network's largest participating municipality. He said UTOPIA "did not have any knowledge" that the information would be used in a news article.

Winder said he wrote the story because he was "frustrated by what was going on" with media reports about a federal lawsuit in which Hogan alleged he was fired for pointing out potential conflicts of interest at UTOPIA. Hogan served for two years as a consultant over the network's sales, marketing, business development and engineering efforts.

"One side of the story wasn't being told," Winder said Thursday, "and I had a mechanism for telling the story."

Both lawsuits are still active.

Despite not knowing Burwash was Winder, Shaw says, "the factual basis of the story is correct."

Four days after the story was posted on KSL.com, former Deseret News managing editor LaVarr Webb emailed Deseret News and Deseret Connect editors with concerns about the story being one-sided.

Noting that he's a friend and former neighbor of Hogan, Webb expressed concern that Hogan was being "treated unfairly, especially by UTOPIA leaders."

"I'm concerned because the story included factual errors and lacked any sort of balance," he wrote.

Deseret News editors opted not to run the story, and it since has been removed from KSL.com.

In addition to Winder's ties to the story as mayor of West Valley City, UTOPIA was a client of his employer at the time, The Summit Group.

Winder said no one at The Summit Group was aware that he was the author of the news story until last week.

Spokeswoman Julie Paulson said UTOPIA on Wednesday put its contract with The Summit Group "on hiatus."

"Given the circumstances, we thought that would be best for all parties," she said.

Paulson also admitted that Winder used her Deseret Connect account in June to attempt to publish a pro-UTOPIA story. Editors rejected the submission after checking facts in the article.

One source interviewed in the story said he had not spoken with Paulson and instead had talked with "Mike," who represented himself as a Deseret News reporter. Paulson also had not identified herself as a UTOPIA employee.

She said Winder "thought it would be a good idea to ghostwrite some stories for (UTOPIA.)"

Paulson said she gave Winder permission to set up the freelance writer account using her information, but that Winder wrote the article.

Winder claims the news story was "a collaboration."

Email: jpage@desnews.com

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