SALT LAKE CITY — Two days after Gary Ott was last re-elected as Salt Lake County recorder, Karmen Sanone was hired to work for him as one of his top administrators.
Sanone had just finished helping him manage his campaign and appeared in his stead multiple times during campaign events. Years earlier, she helped Ott manage his 2010 campaign.
Yet Ott’s relationship with Sanone appears to be more than just political or professional. Sanone has been identified as Ott’s fiancée, girlfriend or wife in court documents, police reports, social media posts and personal conversations.
Neither Ott nor Sanone will discuss their relationship, but reports about them are prompting Salt Lake County officials to take a new look at the county’s nepotism ordinance, a law designed to avoid unethical working relationships among employees.
The current nepotism ordinance prohibits employees from supervising a “relative or household member.” It doesn’t address romantic relationships unless the employees are married or have lived together for an entire year.
Questions are being raised about whether Ott lives with Sanone in North Ogden after Ott told a police officer he lives with her, according to newly-released video from an officer’s body camera.
Ott owns a home in Salt Lake City, the residence that roots him to the county he was elected to represent. But if Ott has shifted his primary residence outside of the county, such action could remove him from the seat he’s held for more than 15 years.
Such issues add to a cloud of concerns looming over the county recorder’s office since a Deseret News investigation in February questioned whether Ott is suffering from health concerns that may be preventing him from doing his job. Some county employees have also alleged that Sanone and Ott’s chief deputy are running the office and covering for him and his condition.
A personal relationship between Ott and Sanone “is common knowledge” among county employees, according to Ray Lancaster, union president for the Utah Alliance of Government Employees. She claims that’s been the case since before Sanone was hired to work for Ott on Nov. 6, 2014, two days after Ott was re-elected to serve a fourth term.
“Karmen told me Gary is her significant other,” Lancaster said, recalling a conversation she had with Sanone at a Meet the Candidates event during Ott’s 2014 campaign.
Last year, however, Human Resources Director Michael Ongkiko said his department looked into rumors that Ott and Sanone were in a relationship and found no violations of the county’s nepotism ordinance.
Sanone has declined to answer questions from the Deseret News about whether she is in a relationship with Ott. “That's my personal life. I don't have to respond to that and I'm not going to," she said.
Ott and Sanone have declined numerous requests for an interview. On Tuesday, Ott responded to emailed questions asking whether he is married, engaged or living with Sanone with a one-sentence reply: "I can assure you that there are no nepotism violations in the recorder's office by any of the staff."
Sanone did not respond to an email with the same questions.
Ott’s No. 2, Salt Lake County Chief Deputy Recorder Julie Dole, has denied witnessing anything that might suggest Ott and Sanone are in a personal relationship, and she believes the county’s nepotism policy isn’t being violated.
“Everything is professional in the office,” she said. “Gary’s been elected and is qualified for his job. Karmen’s qualified for her job. They do their jobs.”
Dole added that she was the one who made the decision to hire Sanone, not Ott. “I begged her to come out of retirement,” she said.
Ott earned $179,746 in salary and benefits in 2015, according to Salt Lake County records. In the same year, Dole earned $179,953 in salary and benefits and Sanone collected $65,0947 in salary and benefits.
Ott, 64, was last re-elected in 2014. Under a specially extended term, he will not be up for re-election until the end of 2020.
On a cold night in January, Ott had an encounter with police in Tooele County. A Granstville police officer found Ott stranded near Rush Valley shortly before midnight, his truck empty of gas and in the middle of a lane of traffic. The incident raised questions about Ott’s health. Body camera footage shows he was unable to answer simple questions, seemed confused and struggled to follow instructions.
Police wrote that Ott was cold and "completely unaware of anything" and "wasn't making any sense" when he was asked questions.
The video also raises questions about Ott's personal life. In the footage obtained by the Deseret News through a public records request, Ott told police that he lives with Sanone.
“Who do you live with?” Grantsville Police Sgt. Michael Jones asks in the video.
“Karmen,” Ott replies.
"Is that your wife?" Jones asks.
"Yeah," he said.
The officer twice asks Ott what her phone number is. Ott's voice is muffled and difficult to hear, but he replies: " I'll give up anything I can."
"Why do you not know your wife's phone number?" the sergeant asks.
Ott's response is inaudible. Jones then asks Ott twice what his home phone number is. Ott's reply is again muffled, but he can be heard saying his "eyes hurt."
Earlier in the video, the officer asks Ott where he is headed. Ott replies, "I sleep down in Salt Lake." When directly asked if he lives in Salt Lake, Ott doesn't clarify.
"I, Salt Lake, up there is where I grew up. However, I've been in the recorder's office far longer than that," he says in the video.
After officers took Ott to a hospital, dispatchers contacted Sanone — who is listed in police reports of the incident as Ott’s “girlfriend” — and she responded to the hospital to pick him up.
Sanone previously said Ott’s behavior that night was because he “had been stranded in the cold for a very long time. He was suffering from hypothermia."
Other accounts also appear to point to a relationship between the elected recorder and his government affairs liaison:
• Ott described himself as “a longtime friend and now fiancé of Karmen Sanone” in a 2010 court document. He submitted the affidavit on Sanone’s behalf as part of a dispute between her and her daughter over Sanone’s deceased husband’s estate in North Ogden.
• Vanna Hunter, who worked as Ott’s administrative assistant for 10 years before she retired in June 2014, said it became “generally known” among county workers that Sanone and Ott were a “couple,” after Sanone helped manage Ott’s 2010 campaign.
“I know they were in a romantic relationship because Gary talked about it,” she said. “If I remember correctly, it was soon after the 2010 re-election that Gary started wearing a wedding band. He swore he and Karmen were not married, but he believed they were totally committed to each other and the ring was a token of their commitment.”
Hunter also said Ott would often talk about how he loved to work on Sanone’s farm in North Ogden.
“I generally understood from what Gary told me that he stayed at his house in Salt Lake City on weekdays and spent weekends and holidays at Karmen’s farm,” she said. “I believe that was the standard procedure, at least until I left. He knew he had to maintain his residence in Salt Lake County. If he could have, he would have lived on the farm full time.”
• Rick Votaw, a former Salt Lake County GOP vice chairman familiar with Ott through his campaigns, said Ott has “flat out told me they were living together.”
• According to address listings, Ott owns a home in the Bonneville Hills neighborhood of Salt Lake City while Sanone maintains a residence in North Ogden. Some neighbors of Ott have told the Deseret News they regularly see him at his Salt Lake home, but others say they rarely see him coming and going.
On March 11, a notice was posted on Ott’s door that his electric service was disconnected the day before because the bill was past due.
When the Deseret News attempted to meet with Ott in his office on March 29, staff members said he was at home sick. When a reporter rang the doorbell at his Salt Lake home at 10:30 a.m. that day, there was no answer or indication that anyone was home. No vehicle was present in the driveway, and even though neighbors’ garbage cans were out on the street to be emptied that morning, Ott’s remained by the side of the house.
• Kendra Davis, who worked in the recorder’s office for 17 years before she left to work in the assessor’s office last year, said based on conversations she’s had with Ott over the years, he talked as if he lives with Sanone at her North Ogden property.
“He’d tell us, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go up to my farm up there in Ogden. I’ve got to work on this and that,’” she said. “It seemed like he’s out there quite often.”
• Dole said she knows of no relationship between Ott and Sanone, saying they “don’t do anything couple-like” in front of her to suggest they might be together.
Yet a picture posted in 2012 on Dole’s Facebook page shows Ott and Sanone together at a Christmas party at the state Capitol. Dole captioned the photo: “The Honorable Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott with his fiancée Karmen Sanone.”
When asked about the Facebook photo, Dole said, “Anything that has to do with that would be their personal life.”
Dole also said she knows Ott lives at his Salt Lake home.
“That’s where I pick him up when we go to the same meetings together,” she said, adding that Ott doesn’t drive as much since he broke his hand.
• Ott has also posted photos on his Facebook page describing “life on the ranch,” even though address records do not indicate Ott owns any rural property. Other posts depict interactions between Ott and Sanone. On Feb. 6, 2016, Ott tags Sanone in a picture of two of his dogs playing together. In a April 16, 2015, post, Ott mentions Karmen and her daughter, thanking them for celebrating his birthday with him. On Oct. 1, 2014, Sanone and Ott are also pictured together at the Utah Governor’s Mansion.
• In a June 27, 2015, post, Dole tags Ott and Sanone in an event in North Ogden, where Dole describes the “amazing experiences I get to have by knowing Gary Ott and Karmen Sanone,” with pictures of Dole’s daughter, Ott and Sanone hauling and stacking hay.
• Ott’s 2014 political opponent, Mary Bishop, said she saw Ott at only one campaign event that year — the Rose Park Community Festival in May — when he was running for re-election, and he never debated her. Bishop said Sanone spoke in his place during at least a dozen other campaign events, and she was introduced as his “fiancée” several times.
“Is this nepotism? You better believe it,” Bishop said.
• Three current Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office staff members told the Deseret News they suspect Ott and Sanone are a couple, but they didn’t want to be named because they fear they could lose their jobs.
One said she’s seen them wearing matching weddings bands. Another said Ott introduced Sanone as his “significant other” when they first met before Sanone was hired. However, none of the three said they’ve seen any displays of affection or anything else to indicate they could be in a relationship.
A public records request of documents and results of last year’s investigation of Ott and Sanone yielded no results.
Ongkiko said no records were kept because there was no “formal” investigation of the nepotism policy. He said it only entailed phone conversations with the county’s legal counsel, Jason Rose, and searches of “physical home addresses” within the HR database.
When the system showed they maintained separate addresses, that was the extent of the investigation, he said.
“Nothing has been brought to my attention that they are living together, at least since we first researched it,” Ongkiko said.
A separate external investigation of the recorder’s office was conducted in October after a staff member filed a complaint regarding “workplace concerns.” Among the complaints — which included concerns about Ott’s health and whether his condition was being hidden by Dole and Sanone — was an allegation that Sanone was “unfortunately, (Ott's) girlfriend or fiancée.”
The investigation by the private law firm Holland and Hart found no violations of county policy but noted there is “clearly some dysfunction in the recorder’s office.” That’s because some employees perceived, in contrast of management witnesses, that there were problems with Ott’s health and were “resentful that his girlfriend was hired to walk him through his job (he told one that she was his wife),” the report states.
Lancaster said HR should investigate whether Ott and Sanone have obtained a marriage certificate, since she and other employees have noticed they wear matching wedding bands.
The Deseret News contacted clerks in Utah counties across the Wasatch Front and searched databases like Ancestry.com but found no marriage certificate on file for Sanone and Ott. However, marriage certificates can be issued in individual counties across the United States, and only some states have statewide databases.
Ongkiko could not answer whether anyone has searched for a marriage certificate for Ott and Sanone but indicated the county’s legal counsel, Rose, may have researched it. But when the Deseret News requested confirmation with Rose, he wrote in an email that he had “no comment on the matter.”
Nepotism law review
Since the Deseret News first reported questions regarding Ott’s health and that Sanone was listed as his “girlfriend” in police reports, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said many have been questioning why the county doesn’t prohibit romantic relationships among employees.
“In light of the recent situation, we’ve had a lot of constituents ask us why the county’s nepotism policy isn’t stronger,” she said. “When we look at policy changes, we don’t ever want to make changes for one particular situation, we want to look at making good policy for the county, so we’re looking at what would be appropriate.”
Newton said the council will be consulting with the mayor’s office, human resources and the district attorney’s office to either make another human resources policy or rewrite the nepotism ordinance so that it includes romantic relationships. She said she was still in the process of drafting it, so she was uncertain when the changes will be presented on the council agenda.
“We just want to send the message that we want to have good, fair policy and make sure our supervisors know what’s appropriate and what’s ethical,” she said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said he hadn’t met with Newton yet about any proposed changes to strengthen the nepotism ordinance, but he welcomes the conversation.
“We want to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and there aren’t conflicts of interest in the workplace that could pose problems, so I think that’s certainly something that is worthy of consideration,” he said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office has not been formally asked to investigate Ott and Sanone, but he will be consulting with the mayor and the council if they request his legal advice.
Nepotism and residency laws, Gill noted, are nuanced, and so it would depend on a “fact-specific analysis” to determine if there are any violations. For example, he said the nepotism ordinance’s definition for “household member” might be difficult to define.
“Let’s say two people are involved in a romantic relationship. They both have their own residency but once in a while one person may spend the night at another person’s house. Have they become housemates?” Gill questioned.
If statutes don’t “capture” clear legal definitions, it would be up to the council to decide if they need to make policy adjustments, Gill said.
“These are all open-ended questions, and I think those are the kind of issues that the council has an obligation to try to address if they see enough of a problem,” he added.
County Council Chairman Max Burdick said he’s “interested” in Newton’s proposed changes, though he wants to see any proposed adjustments before deciding if it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Defining romantic relationships can be difficult, he noted.
County Councilman Steve Debry said he considers romantic relationships within county departments “inappropriate,” so he will be consulting with other council members and legal council about next steps.
“At the end of the day we want to make sure there are no issues or problems, and if we need to readdress the ordinance and amend, then that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
But Debry noted that it’s difficult to balance work life and personal liberties.
“There’s a fine line there, in my opinion, between what two consenting adults can do on their own time outside of government and outside their official business,” he said. “If it isn’t affecting their job or affecting their workplace and work product, then is it our place to meddle in someone’s private life?”
Debry added nepotism concerns aren’t “just specific to Mr. Ott.”
“It’s a broader issue that should pertain to all county government,” he said. “We don’t go on witch hunts, but we have to look to make certain that there isn’t any improprieties or malfeasance going on in that office.”
Residency laws within Salt Lake County match state law, which mandate that elected officials maintain residency within the boundaries of their respective municipalities throughout their terms.
If an elected official establishes a principal place of residence outside their municipality during their term, the office becomes “automatically vacant,” Utah election code states.
When a person’s principal place of residence is called into question, it would be up to the county clerk to determine whether further investigation is needed, said State Elections Director Mark Thomas. Then a judge would consider several factors — including where the person usually sleeps, where the person’s family resides and location of the person’s owned property — before determining the principal place of residence.
Thomas said determining residency hinges on “intent,” and, according to state law, a person doesn’t lose his or her principal place of residence until another principal place of residence is established.
“If someone says, ‘This is my principal place of residence, it’s very, very, very difficult to prove otherwise, just because it’s based on intent,” Thomas said, noting there are no requirements that mandate elected officials must live in their municipality for a certain portion of the year.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said nepotism and residency laws are in place for elected officials in order to nurture healthy working environments and public trust.
“We live in an age in which trusting government is already low, and ethical standards are in place to reassure the public that elected officials are being public minded and community minded and are not making decisions with merely their self-interest in mind,” he said.