The Utah County sheriff's office is investigating allegations of "questionable" billing practices and favoritism in awarding contracts and referrals in the Utah County Substance Abuse and Mental Competency Department.

Sheriff Dave Bateman confirmed that a couple of providers have made allegations about inequities in the amount of business going to competitors and that an investigation concerning the allegations is open. However, because of problems gathering information, the investigation is on hold pending the outcome of an audit by state agencies."I will confirm that we're looking into it. It has not been high priority because of the difficulty we've had getting the information we've needed," Bateman said.

Bateman said the investigation began after the state attorney general's office declined to open a case. The allegations were brought to the attention of the attorney general's office in April by Bob Stringham, Utah County Democratic Party chairman and counselor for Assessment and Psychotherapy Associates Inc., a Salt Lake alcohol and substance abuse treatment center.

Stringham and Roger Coplen, director of DUI Educational Associates, have both accused the county's substance abuse department and its director, Bruce Burdick, of improprieties.

But Coplen also accused Stringham of improprieties. He said the documents that Stringham took to the attorney general's office are confidential client lists and billing information that Stringham obtained from Burdick's secretary using coercive tactics.

Stringham said the documents were given to him by an employee of the substance abuse department who had concerns about corruption.

"The documents that I was given regarding the allegations of corruption in the Utah County Department of Substance Abuse were public financial documents and are not confidential," Stringham said.

Coplen, who is one of the providers being audited, said Stringham initiated the investigation to draw attention away from himself.

"The only reason I'm being audited is because I raised hell over Bob Stringham's actions," Coplen said.

Bateman said that the sheriff's department investigation is not concerned with the way Stringham obtained the documents or whether they are confidential.

In a 20-page letter he sent to President Bush and Utah's congressional leaders, Coplen also accused the substance abuse department of not following proper bid procedures, and said the county has a conflict of interest and should not be able to award contracts to Wasatch Mental Health (formerly Timpanogos Mental Health Center). In a Sept. 13 letter responding to Cop-len's charges, Norm Angus, state director of human services, said the county has followed state laws in its awarding of treatment and prevention contracts. However, Angus did not dispute Coplen's charge that Stringham had obtained confidential documents.

"Corrective action has been taken by the county against the secretary who allegedly provided confidential information," Angus stated in his letter.

Burdick declined to comment on the allegations or on whether his secretary had provided Stringham with documents or "corrective action" had been taken against her. He did say that his office has shown no favoritism to any providers.

"There has been no back-scratching of any kind going on in any of this," Burdick said.

Kent Sundberg, deputy county attorney, said he reviewed the department's bid process and recommended that Burdick restart the bidding process because bids were not being reviewed by an independent panel.

"It was my recommendation that they more strictly follow procedures in the request-for-proposal process," Sundberg said.

Bateman said that if the audits reveal any wrongdoings those involved will be prosecuted. "If not, we will pat (people) on the head and say `you're clean.' "

This is the second time in less than a year that Burdick's office has been the subject of controversy. Last November Rocky Mountain Consultants accused Burdick of showing favoritism in referring DUI offenders to Stringham.