The Utah attorney general's office filed charges against Daggett County Attorney Wayne Searle on Thursday in connection with an alleged drunken driving incident earlier this month and an unrelated misdemeanor theft case from last year.
On the same day, Searle filed misdemeanor charges accusing the Daggett County sheriff of providing alcohol to minors and a civil complaint accusing the County Commission of misuse of public funds.The flurry of criminal and civil charges and countercharges is the latest development in what many of the participants describe as a smoldering political mess in the isolated and sparsely populated northeast Utah county.
"It's really heating up," Searle said, adding that the situation has become so tense that he now takes along a bodyguard when he travels through the county.
He maintains that the local "political dynasty" is out to ruin him because of his attempt to break its grip on county government.
Filed in 8th Circuit Court, one of the attorney general's charges accuses Searle of theft of a license plate and improper use or display of a license plate - both class B misdemeanors. The alleged offense occurred between Nov. 17 and Nov. 23, 1989. The attorney general's office declined to explain the allegation and Searle would say only that "it's preposterous."
The other charge accuses Searle of drunken driving, failure to report an accident and leaving the scene of an accident. It stems from Searle's arrest Sept. 13 after an off-duty deputy sheriff saw a car swerve off U-43 near Manila, crash through a fence and then return to the road.
According to investigators, the deputy summoned another deputy, and they followed the car to Searle's home. When no one answered their knock, the deputies decided to call in the Utah Highway Patrol because of a possible conflict of interest that would arise from their arrest of a county official.
Because Searle is the chief legal officer for the county - as well as the only lawyer in the county attorney's office - the investigation and prosecution of the case was taken over by the attorney general.
Meanwhile, Searle is pursuing his own prosecution of county officials. He said he has signed a criminal misdemeanor complaint alleging that Sheriff Galen Jarvie provided alcohol to minors during an undercover sting operation.
Further, he charges that within hours of informing the attorney general's office of his evidence, the sheriff was "out looking for the three kids." The implication, said Searle, is that Jarvie was tipped off.
He also said he has filed a civil complaint alleging that commissioners misused public funds when they paid Vernal attorney Larry Steele $3,991 to fill in as county attorney while he was on leave of absence for 30 days during December 1989 and January 1990. Searle noted that he is paid only $600 a month.
Searle was elected county attorney in 1988 as a write-in candidate following a two-year political and legal battle with the County Commission. His efforts to become county attorney included a federal lawsuit and a petition before the Utah Supreme Court.
In the court action, Searle challenged the commission's appointment of Uintah County lawyer Dennis Judd as Daggett County attorney. Searle argued that as the only licensed attorney in Daggett County, he should be appointed chief prosecutor.
After he won election - as the only candidate - the commission cut the county attorney's salary in half and reduced the office budget. Searle says he can't even afford a secretary. "I do all the typing myself."
According to Searle, most of the acrimony stems from his objection to Gene Briggs serving as county auditor, assessor, clerk and recorder, and also from his legal defense of a man whom the sheriff disliked.
He said county officials have been trying to implicate him in criminal activity ever since he moved to Daggett County.
"After I had lived there for a while, I began to question the selective prosecution by the sheriff and improprieties by other government officials, and they blocked me," Searle said. "They want to control all of the government offices up there."
Daggett County Commission Chairman LaRay Sadlier said the commission had the right to hire outside counsel when Searle took his leave of absence and that the payment to Steele was not out of line.
"He (Steele) did quite a bit of work for us, catching up on things that had to be done," Sadlier said.
Sadlier also defended Jarvie, saying, "I have a lot more confidence in the sheriff than I do in the county attorney."
However, he said the commission will not ask Searle to step down pending resolution of the charges. "Our hands are tied unless the courts remove him," Sadlier said.
The commissioner said the furor hasn't impeded government operations so far, but he conceded, "Things are not going too smooth right now."
Different vantage points
"I have a lot more confidence in the sheriff than I do in the county attorney." - Daggett County Commission Chairman LaRay Sadlier
"After I had lived there for a while, I began to question the selective prosecution by the sheriff and improprieties by other government officials, and they blocked me." - Daggett County Attorney Wayne Searle