SALT LAKE CITY — It's been nearly six months since a scathing state audit reported potential misuse of public funds within the Unified Fire Authority and recommended a criminal investigation into its past leadership.
The status of that investigation and whether criminal charges will be filed remain unclear — but Unified's newly sworn in chief, Dan Petersen, says investigators with the Utah Attorney General's Office have "initiated a review of everything."
"They've pulled all the auditor's documents and have been interviewing staff for the last several weeks," Petersen told the Deseret News.
Last year, former Unified Fire Chief Michael Jensen and his deputy, Gaylord Scott, both resigned amid questions about their compensation and spending practices, though neither cited the controversy as reasons for resigning.
The Unified Fire Authority's board voted to seek legal recovery of all funds that an audit says Jensen and Scott improperly received or spent — to the tune of at least $370,000 that Jensen allegedly approved as "incentive awards" to himself, Scott and two other former fire administrators over the past four years, as well as tens of thousands of more dollars in "excessive" and "questionable" travel and Apple Store purchases.
The audit accuses Jensen and Scott of overspending Unified dollars on travel, including a weeklong baseball junket in Arizona and an extended trip to Anaheim that appeared to have little department work. Scott spent more than $23,000 on technology purchases, the audit says, including $15,000 at Apple for equipment used "primarily for personal purposes or unallowable uses."
The auditor said Jensen and Scott displayed an apparent "culture of excess and entitlement."
Jensen continues to serve as a Salt Lake County councilman and maintains his innocence, calling the audit "inaccurate" and "unfair." He said Wednesday he hadn't yet been contacted by investigators.
"When and if the attorney general's office wishes to sit down with me, I'd be more than happy to answer their questions," Jensen said. "I haven't done anything wrong, and I believe the investigation will show that."
Scott has not publicly commented about the allegations against him.
Attorney general spokesman Dan Burton declined to confirm or deny any criminal investigation, but he did confirm his office has received the complaint.
Petersen said Unified Fire Authority must wait until the attorney general's office completes its investigation before it can seek legal recovery of the $370,000.
But in the meantime, Petersen says the agency has made great progress to help overhaul its policies, improve employee morale and eventually regain public trust.
Since he was sworn in in March, Petersen has been largely focused on accomplishing a daunting task — one he describes as "righting the ship after a very public and well-deserved flogging."
He jokes he took on the challenge because "I was dropped on my head as a kid."
On a serious note, however, Petersen said the audits and investigation into Unified over the past year have been "healthy" for the agency.
During a recent interview in his office, the chief flipped through a 45-page June progress report, in which 76 of the state auditor's 126 recommendations had been checked off.
Those actions include, among many, the referral of potential misuse of public funds to law enforcement for possible criminal investigation, regular review of travel expenditures, a requirement for the Unified board to directly review receipts for department spending, and the establishment of a schedule to regularly review and update policies.
"We've made some great progress," Petersen said, hoping all 126 recommendations will be addressed by the end of the year.
Additionally, Petersen pointed to a survey of Unified's leadership and staff, in which most respondents ranked the agency's changes over the past six months and whether they've had any significance.
According to the survey results, most respondents see the agency's administrative reorganization, acceptance of the state audit, the establishment of "leader expectations" and "new vision, mission and values" as "critical" actions.
They also lauded the chief for conducting more than 130 meetings with small groups of employees to listen to their concerns and share expectations, as well as efforts to create a more detailed and "transparent" budget.
Previously, Unified Fire Authority's budget was three pages, Petersen said. Now it's 130 pages.
"I'd love to have it all behind us, I would," the chief said of Unified's ongoing investigations. "But none of us can ignore where we are. What we're going through is healthy. It really is. It's allowing us to do the right things and move forward. We're not going to ignore the past, we're going to learn from it. We can't just act like none of it happened."
Jeremy Robertson, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1696 union, which represents most of Unified's firefighters, said the agency's changes are "definitely" improving employee morale.
"The employees appreciate the direction that Chief Petersen and the command staff are taking the organization," he said, crediting Petersen for working with rank-and-file firefighters for input.
For example, Robertson said five years ago Unified didn't have a single fire engine or ladder truck that was staffed with at least four firefighters — a standard he said is ideal for safety. He said starting on July 1, under Petersen's leadership, 20 of the agency's fire engines and trucks will have four assignees.
"These are changes we've been able to make under Chief Petersen's leadership," he said. "He's helping us serve the community better and making things safer for paramedics and firefighters."
As for the ongoing investigation and potential recovery of misused funds, Robertson said: "We're both anxious and patient."
"We understand the process isn't going to be quick in order to be done properly and thoroughly," he said. "And a thorough and proper investigation is important for us to defend our names and the good work we do."