When the finger-pointing started, attorney James L. Barker got up and left.
Barker, appointed by the Salt Lake Redevelopment Agency to investigate a rumor that some RDA members promised a local bank it would win a bonding contract, released his findings Thursday after a 6-week probe."I have been able to develop no evidence whatsoever that anything improper occurred," he told the RDA, whose board of directors is the City Council.
But no sooner had he laid the investigation to rest than the council room erupted as members argued over a previous motion made by Councilman Alan Hardman that Councilman Tom Godfrey apologize for airing the rumor.
Barker abruptly shoved back his chair and interrupted. "If you want to get into a discussion of who should apologize . . . that's beyond the scope of my duty." With that, he left the room.
The scene recalled the March evening the controversy began. The council was debating granting a $23 million Block 57 financing package to Zions First National Bank, netting the bank $40,000 in fees.
Zions was named in a 1984 RDA resolution as the financial consultant for buying land and developing infrastructure on ailing Block 57 in the downtown. Zions, however, never obtained a formal consultant's contract.
In March 1989, the RDA voted to sign a contract with Zions after five years without rebidding the contract.
Godfrey said many in the financial community believed that was too long for a single company to retain a contract. Giving the contract to Zions might smack of partiality, he said.
To illustrate the perception created by the Zions contract, Godfrey said he heard rumors "some kind of deal was cut" between Zions and one or more council members, giving the bank the bonding package. Godfrey identified no one.
Later during that meeting, however, Council Chairman W.M. "Willie" Stoler and RDA Chairwoman Florence Bittner interrupted the meeting to say they were the subjects of the rumor and vehemently denied there was any truth to the story.
Stoler said he had a chance meeting with one Zions official in a grocery store parking lot. Bittner said she had an informal phone call with a Zions official. Both suspected the incidents were the impetus for the rumors but denied that any promises were made.
Angered over the rumor, Stoler called for an investigation. Hardman joined in the call for a probe and added that Godfrey should reveal the rumor's source and, if it were proven false, publicly apologize for airing the story.
Enter Barker, a former assistant state attorney general and one-time Salt Lake commissioner, who offered to conduct the inquiry for free. Barker interviewed the entire council, Mayor Palmer DePaulis, finance professionals and others to get to the bottom of the rumor.
In his written report to the RDA, Barker said the only possible "improper activity" associated with the rumor was a violation of the state's open meeting laws.
"I have been unable to develop any evidence which would indicate that any official . . . violated the provisions of the Open Meeting Act," he concluded in his report.
The rumor, in part, was the result of "strong-minded" council members, some of whom felt that they weren't included in the information loop, Barker said. The City Council is plagued by a strong 4-3 rivalry.
"And strong-minded people like to be advised and know what's going on," Barker said.
Before Barker could get any more philosophical, the imbroglio between council members erupted and the attorney left.
Hardman asked if Godfrey would reveal his source and apologize. Godfrey refused, saying to do so "would be setting a terrible precedent."
Stoler said he was pleased to have his name cleared and declared, "I think it's best to put this behind us."
Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck said the investigation was a result of an overreaction on the part of some RDA members, saying rumors like the one Godfrey chose to air have been commonplace in city government.
"But this is the first time that everyone has freaked out," she said.