SALT LAKE CITY — More than two years after media reports and a state audit first raised concerns of possible misuse of public funds — revealing questionable spendingpractices and hefty pay bonuses — the Utah Attorney General's Office has declined to prosecute two former Unified Fire Authority bosses.
After spending "hundreds of hours" fleshing out concerns detailed in the scathing state audit, officials from the state's top prosecuting agency called behavior by former Unified Fire Chief Michael Jensen and former Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott "troubling" — but said it was unlikely the two men would be criminally convicted.
Jensen currently serves as a Salt Lake County Councilman and was recently appointed to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority Board.
Citing an environment in which the fire agency had "little oversight or control" over the former officials, assistant attorney general Dave Carlson said in a prepared statement, "It appears that certain former UFA officials recognized and exploited the absence of accountability."
A 196-page investigative report obtained Monday through a public records request detailed the attorney general's offices' findings, including details of interviews with dozens of witnesses that described not only questions of misuse of public funds, but also allegations of nepotism, a pattern of abuse of power for personal gain, and claims the men created a "culture of fear" at Unified Fire Authority by being "vindictive" and "intimidating," one employee said in an interview.
"In our opinion, however, it is unlikely that criminal charges against the former UFA officials could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," Carlson said.
"The exorbitant bonuses, reimbursement for personal vacations attached to official travel, purchase of electronic equipment for personal use, and the hiring of close family members outside UFA hiring rules were all ultimately approved through the loose UFA governance and management structure, which puts the likelihood of a criminal conviction in significant doubt," Carlson said.
A forensic examination of Scott's computers paid for on the taxpayer dime — which showed there was "significant personal and family use of the computers" — also discovered three images of child pornography on Scott's computer, leading to a separate criminal case.
But prosecutors also closed that case without pursuing charges after "there was insufficient information to develop probable cause against any particular individual," said the attorney general's spokesman, Daniel Burton. Among the reasons why that proved to be difficult, Burton said, was that investigators concluded multiple people had access to the computer, which would make prosecution difficult.
The investigation into Jensen and Scott — who both resigned as the controversy began unfolding — came after State Auditor John Dougall's office concluded an audit into the agency and recommended a criminal investigation into the former chiefs.
Jensen, reached Monday, provided the Deseret News with a single statement he declined to elaborate on.
"I retired. I've moved on. I wish them the best," he said.
Scott's attorney, Richard Van Wagoner, didn't immediately return a request for comment Monday.
'Culture of fear'
The investigative report detailed thousands of dollars in questionable purchases, including that Scott used his Unified Fire Authority purchase card to buy $23,000 worth of technology items between January 2012 to July 2016. That included iPads, Apple watches, Nikon cameras and an iMac for his home, some of which he bought when he resigned.
Between those purchases and questionable travel expenditures, including trips to Phoenix and Anaheim, California, that extended days beyond work-related conference dates, some employees like Assistant Chief Mike Watson started to worry.
In his interview with investigators, Watson said after he received public records requests from reporters about purchase and travel records, he began reviewing the logs himself. Thereafter, Watson drafted a letter to the Unified Fire Authority board requesting an audit.
"Watson said that no one dared to confront or call Jensen or Scott on what they were doing because people were afraid of them and afraid of getting fired," according to the investigative report.
Watson told investigators that no one in the command staff felt like they could approach Jensen or Scott or report it to the board because "they were in Jensen's 'pocket.'"
Jensen, as a Salt Lake County councilman, oversaw funding that could affect cities, and some felt Jensen either controlled the board or had them "in the dark," Watson told investigators. He also said if a board member asked questions, Jensen and Scott "would do what they could to discredit that board member," according to Watson's interview.
"Watson said that there was a high level of intimidation and no one felt they had a voice because of Jensen's political ties," the report stated. "Watson said that it seemed that Jensen and Scott were good about working to get the right people as chair as being those whom they could manipulate."
In an interview with investigators, Kin Smith, Unified Fire's information technology supervisor, and Warren James, a communications/information technology battalion chief — joined by Watson — described their concerns with Scott's technology purchases, noting that whenever a new iPad or iPhone would come out, "Scott would come to IT and tell them his broke and he needed a new one," James told investigators.
Smith, James and Watson all said "Jensen and Scott had created a culture of fear" at the agency and no one would dare question anything they did, as they had seen both of them publicly berate employees for small issues," investigators reported.
In another interview with investigators, Arriann Woolf, Unified Fire's human resources director, said the work environment under Jensen and Scott was "intimidating," describing the men as "vindictive" and "intimidating" toward others.
"Woolf described incidents where Scott would explode into "tirades" toward employees in front of everyone," the report states. "She said this would often happen and Jensen would "just sit back with a smirk."
Woolf described to investigators one command staff meeting, when she told Jensen that agency policy didn't allow what he wanted to do.
Jensen got angry, the report says, and "came over the table," yelling at Woolf, "I don't give a (expletive) what your policies say."
Woolf also recalled a staff meeting when issues with Unified Fire Authority began to surface in media reports and there were rumors about people talking to reporters.
"Scott yelled at everyone saying that they were in a 'brotherhood' and that they shouldn't be taking issues outside, and anyone talking to the media could go '(expletive)' yourself," investigators reported from Woolf's interview. "Jensen just sat back and nodded."
The controversy around the former fire bosses after news reports of big bonuses — or "incentives," as Jensen described them — began after first City Weekly, then the Deseret News, detailed how the pay grew to more than $30,000 each for a handful of Unified Fire Authority leaders, which amounted to more than $400,000 between 2011 and 2015.
State auditors soon launched their own investigation. Scott resigned about a month before; Jensen resigned a week later. Other fire officials who received the incentive pay also left within months, including Chief Financial Officer Shirley Perkins and Chief Legal Officer Karl Hendrickson.
Perkins later told investigators that both she and Hendrickson "didn't like how this was being done because there was no accounting for the actual time spent" for the incentives, and she left out of fear that Jensen would fire her, according to the investigative report.
Jensen and Scott told investigators the "incentives" were justified because of additional work required to fund and build new fire stations within the separate Unified Fire Service Area, a taxing district that levies property taxes to build agency fire stations.
In addition to pornography found on Scott's computer, investigators also found other "explicit" content on a computer used by a former Unified Fire Service Area clerk — Ryan Perry, who is now Salt Lake County chief deputy recorder. Perry also served a senior policy adviser for the Salt Lake County Council.
According to a forensic examination, a MacBook air that was logged into Perry's work email also showed to have "explicit webchats, video feeds and pornographic images," as well as a few documents that appeared to be used for campaign purposes, according to the investigator's report. Another computer showed it was used primarily for work, but there were a number of documents and emails that were "related to Jensen's campaign," according to the investigative report.
In a text to the Deseret News Monday, Perry denied the explicit materials were his.
"The computers in question were used by several people over a large timeframe," Perry said. "None of the materials are mine."
Perry declined to comment on the computer allegedly being used for campaign purposes.
Investigators also probed concerns raised in the state audit including whether Jensen and Scott violated nepotism rules. They found Jensen had four family members — two sons, a cousin and a brother-in-law — employed at Unified Fire Authority, and Scott had three nephews.
Unified Fire's future
The lengthy investigation report from the Utah Attorney General's Office "verified" the state auditor's findings through interviews with 38 witnesses, but ultimately prosecutors decided against bringing charges due to the unlikelihood it would result in the conviction because of the role the agency's board played, Carlson said.
Auditors also recommended Unified Fire Authority seek at least $370,000 that the audit says Jensen and Scott improperly received or spent — something the agency's current board chairman, Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle, said the board may still pursue depending on their review of the attorney general's investigative report.
"We're disappointed that (Jensen and Scott) are not going to be held accountable for the questionable actions that occurred," Dahle said of the attorney general's office deciding against filing charges Monday.
"Based on the attorney general's decisions, I think (agency board members) will have to discuss whether any future action will be taken by our boards," he said.
"I think that decision will be made very quickly," Dahle said, noting the board's next meeting is Sept. 18. "I don't think the board has any desire for this to drag on.
Dahle said since Jensen and Scott's resignation and the state audit, Unified Fire Authority has worked "aggressively" to move forward, including hiring a new chief, Dan Petersen, and revamping the agency's policies and procedures.
"We've moved on," he said. "It's an awful thing to have to go through, but UFA, I think, is as strong as ever because of it."
"Despite what was a very toxic environment at the top levels, UFA continued to operate with the utmost professionalism and deliver top-notch service to residents," Dahle continued. "That never suffered, in my view."
Now that Jensen, Scott and other Unified Fire leaders responsible are gone, Dahle said the agency should move forward — but he said with regard to an intimidating culture where employees were afraid to question Scott or Jensen's behavior, the board "should take full responsibility."
"You know what, that's our fault," he said. "Our board should take full responsibility for letting an environment like that evolve."
Dahle, however, balked at the idea that the board was solely to blame.
"When you have somebody at the very top is loosely interpreting policy and procedures to their own benefit, it's very difficult to catch it," he said. "That's the one thing that's missing from all this — from a personal standpoint, I don't need a policy and procedure to tell me how to responsibly spend taxpayer money."