A Democratic Utah state senator is being accused of trying to get a prison parolee to say false, critical things about an embattled GOP state senator, as the legislative races heat up in an increasingly bitter and divided state Legislature.
Christopher Gardner told K-TALK radio listeners this week that when he refused to tell the media what Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, allegedly wanted him to say about fellow Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, that Gardner was fired from his waiter job at Market Street Grill in downtown Salt Lake City.
McCoy said he had nothing to do with Gardner being fired from his job as a waiter.
Because he is on parole and is supposed to maintain employment, his refusal to criticize Buttars has greatly harmed his life, Gardner says. Buttars is up for re-election this year; McCoy does not face voters until 2010.
According to state Corrections spokeswoman Angie Welling, Gardner is on parole for a kidnapping conviction and is now being required to complete a sex offender program at the Bonneville halfway house.
The Deseret News tried to speak with Gardner multiple times Wednesday, but he was unable to talk. He did speak with K-TALK radio Wednesday afternoon, however, making the same basic allegations he made in an earlier appearance on the radio station.
Restaurant managers supported McCoy's claim, saying they knew nothing about Gardner's charges against McCoy when they fired him.
Gastronomy human resources director Katherine Burns said Wednesday that Gardner was an employee of Market Street, and he was terminated. But that firing had nothing to do at all with McCoy, she said.
"Scott McCoy never called me, never called our (Market Street) manager about Chris and (Gardner's allegations against McCoy) had nothing to do with his termination." For privacy reasons, she declined to say why Gardner was fired, but it was not because he was a parolee.
Burns said Gastronomy knew Gardner was on parole. "We often hire people who have been in trouble, wanting to help give them a second chance," Burns said.
Burns said she had heard nothing about Gardner's charges or his K-TALK interviews until asked by the Deseret News.
McCoy, however, did talk to Gardner about Buttars. And McCoy did tip the Tribune off to a possible story about Buttars, which did not pan out.
Meanwhile, James Evans, Salt Lake County GOP chairman, told the Deseret News that Gardner's story seems to have some legs, since Gardner, a parolee who could have a lot to lose making accusations against a sitting state senator, went to the Attorney General's Office to make a complaint against McCoy.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, said that Shurtleff spoke with Gardner in a chance meeting in a restaurant, heard his complaints against McCoy, and suggested that Gardner come into his office and talk to one of his employees about it.
Murphy said Shurtleff then was hospitalized for a serious infection in one leg and was not in the office when Gardner came in to talk to Wade Farraway, the AG's liaison with the Legislature.
"Wade heard out his story. He knew Gardner was on parole. But what (Gardner) said really wasn't something for our office to deal with; we saw it more as someone trying to make political hay" in an election year, Murphy said. "Unless Mr. Gardner has more information, we are at an end of it here."
Gardner told K-TALK that he also talked to the local branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Gardner said he wouldn't make a false report to law enforcement officers because he knows it is a crime punishable by "zero-to-five" years in jail.
Here is McCoy's side of the story: Democrats meet for breakfast one Tuesday a month at Market Street. As one of those meetings was breaking up, Gardner, whom Democrats knew as a waiter, came up to McCoy and asked if he knew Buttars. McCoy said yes, that he served with him in the Senate.
Gardner then said he knew Buttars from the seven years Gardner was in the Boys Ranch, where Buttars was the long-time director until he retired several years ago. McCoy said Gardner then ticked of a number of bad things that alleged happened during his time there. The Boys Ranch is a private institution that provides help and education for troubled teenage boys.
McCoy declined to list things that Gardner reportedly told him. "Some of it was crazy. Some of it was scandal. I won't repeat it" for the newspaper.
However, after talking about it with some other Democrats, McCoy decided to talk to a Tribune reporter. He offered to help the reporter get in touch with Gardner. And the contact was made, McCoy said. (Gardner said until Wednesday he declined to talk about Buttars to the Tribune).
Gardner alleges that McCoy threatened him, saying that if he didn't say bad things about Buttars to the media, McCoy would harm Gardner's life.
"There was no way I was going back to prison," Gardner said on K-TALK radio Wednesday afternoon. But there was no way he would say bad things about Buttars, either. "Chris is a friend, has been a friend of my family for a long time."
Gardner said McCoy approached him and gave him his Utah Senate business card, which he still has. He says when McCoy told him he knew Gardner was on parole, he took it as a threat. He said his stomach turned into a knot, that he was shaking because he was so afraid to back to prison.
He decided to talk to law enforcement and go on K-TALK because there is "only so much crap you can take in life, right?"The accusation that McCoy threatened Gardner or tried to harm him "is a complete fabrication," McCoy said. "I never made any threats" against Gardner. Gardner "approached me" about Buttars. "I had no idea he had a criminal record," although he did learn about it later. "What he has said (about McCoy) is patently false. I feel sorry for the kid, he clearly has some problems."