A former internal auditor for Utah County says he tried last fall to investigate allegations about the Timpanogos Mental Health Center. But before he could, the Utah County Commission disbanded his team in what it said was a budget-cutting move.
Joseph M. Higbee, an internal auditor for Utah County from January 1986 to March 1988, told the Deseret News from his home in Yuma, Ariz., that he suspects the real reason his team was cut was the nature of allegations it wanted to pursue in various areas, not just pertaining to the mental health center.
Two errors were made in a story Friday about the Timpanogos Mental Health Center. First, J. Bruce Peacock was identified as the Utah County attorney, but he is the county auditor. Second, the story said former Deputy County Attorney Wayne Watson ran unsuccessfully for the County Commission in 1986, but he ran for county attorney.But commissioners say Higbee is wrong: The auditors were doing valuable work, but the program was deemed expendable when budget cuts were necessary.
An audit of the mental health center by the legislative auditor general released this week charges that officials there misused $3.5 million in public funds over four years, giving themselves exorbitant consulting fees, travel expenses and credit card privileges.
Higbee said his team wanted to look into such allegations last October when a Provo attorney gave him a list of 19 allegations against County Attorney Steven B. Killpack and Commissioners Malcolm Beck, Brent Morris and Gary Anderson, some involving Timp Mental Health.
Although Higbee would not identify who the informant was, published reports Friday said it was Wayne Watson a former deputy county attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the County Commission in 1986. That may be one reason some of the allegations were later dismissed as "old political charges."
Higbee said one of the 19 allegations he received involved the mental health center and Killpack, who before being elected county attorney was director of the Utah County Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Competency.
"While director of that program he was in a position to establish contracts with Timp Mental Health. While doing that he also was on a retainer from Timp Mental Health. We began to ask some questions about Timp Mental Health contracts and (all the other) allegations. Within about two weeks . . . we were notified by all three county commissioners that our program budget for 1988 was being cut entirely. We were told . . . that our program was no longer needed," Higbee said.
Higbee said his source later told him he had been in contact with Timpanogos Mental Health employees, who indicated that the auditing budget was eliminated "because the investigation had been making people very uncomfortable."
Higbee said he believes the situation involving the Timpanogos center is "only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the 19 allegations received range from relatively minor infractions to major fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice" against other county officials.
When the team was disbanded, Higbee said he turned the allegations over to County Attorney J. Bruce Peacock.
In a letter dated Feb. 2 to Peacock, Higbee said his office began checkingsome of the allegations to decideif they merited a full audit.
"Based on the preliminary investigation, I was prepared to conduct a full audit," Higbee said in the letter. "No other budget was cut, and all of the county's non-statutory programs were fully funded. On Wednesday, Jan. 20, 1988, I met with you and discussed the allegations. County Treasurer Leonard Ellis was also present. You indicated at our meeting that you will (would) pursue the investigation . . . . I highly recommend a grand jury investigation of the entire matter . . .," Higbee's letter says.
Killpack, who took office in January 1987, said Higbee's "statements regarding me in my prior work for the county are untrue and uninformed. I have no knowledge of why Higbee was released from Utah County nor did I have any knowledge that he was ever asked to review the books at Timp Mental Health.
"I did work for Timpanogos Mental Health for an hourly fee in 1985 and 1986 prior to when I took office as county attorney in 1987," he said. "I have not been employed by Timpanogos Mental Health since my election. The contracts between Timpanogos Mental Health and Utah County are under the control of the County Commission and were beyond the scope of my authority for authorization.
"But I was asked to become a mental health officer by the County Commission and with the approval of the county attorney's office at the time. I became a `mental health officer,' a statutorily authorized position that permits signing emergency admissions for the mentally ill. I performed an on-call service in that capacity for an hourly wage from Timpanogos Mental Health, and I maintained timecards to verify the hours that I worked and to ensure that I was not paid twice for the same service. I worked 40 hours for the county and also performed an on-call service at night and on weekends as a mental health officer for Timpanogos Mental Health."
County commissioners dispute Higbee's claims that his team was disbanded for other than budget reasons. Although Morris said he believes the work performed by Higbee and the other auditors was beneficial to county government, he said the program was expendable when cuts were required.
Morris said the internal auditing function was supervised by a five-member auditing committee as a way of divorcing it from politics. He said he is unaware that the auditors were ever asked to check on the mental health program.
In fact, Delance Squire, a member of an oversight committee that reviewed and determined what audits the team would do, supports Morris's contention. He said an audit of Timp was not planned, and to his knowledge, the audit team never even discussed such an audit.
Anderson, chairman of the tri-county mental health board, said the board accepts responsibility for the center's misuse of public money.
"The fact of the matter is, we followed the system, we had the audits we were supposed to have, we had good quality people and it (misuse of funds) still happened," the county commissioner said.
"We did what we thought was right, and the thing failed," he said. "But we're not going to duck responsibility. The buck stops here."
Of note, Higbee said that after he received allegations against county officials and when his team was in the middle of an audit on the Jordan River Parkway, Commission Chairman "Beck twice threatened me (about the parkway audit), saying I was going to lose my job if I found anything and reported it to the public."
Beck responded: "That is a bold-faced lie."
Kyle A. Thomas, who worked on Higbee's team, said that he overheard Beck threaten Higbee when he questioned Beck's demands that Lynn McCrary, one of the other internal auditors, be assigned to a particular job.
Thomas said that although the auditing function was supervised by a committee, county commissioners "really ran the committee and wouldn't give up control of who we could audit."
"Marv (Higbee) didn't want Lynn in (the job) because he felt it was a violation of budget laws. He told Beck that, and Beck threatened to get rid of him. There is no doubt that Beck threatened to get rid of Marv and the rest of the auditors if Marv didn't comply," Thomas said.
Peacock, who had been in office only a short time when presented the allegations from Higbee, said Thursday that he met with Austin Johnson of the state auditor's office and Stan Olsen of the attorney general's office.
Peacock said he discovered that most of the allegations in the Higbee letter were "old political charges." Peacock said he went over each of the allegations with the two state officials. In a follow-up letter, Olsen said the allegations had either been checked or weren't worth pursuing.
In his letter to Peacock, Higbee states that all of the allegations were submitted to 4th District Court judges, who, according to the letter, opted to turn the information over to the attorney general's office for further investigation.
The Deseret News regrets the errors.