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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Investigations, allegations of malfeasance cast shadow over recorder's office

By Katie McKellar, | Posted - Oct 5th, 2016 @ 10:12pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — The day after a befuddled Gary Ott appeared before the Salt Lake County Council, struggling to answer simple questions about himself and the recorder's office, concerned residents said they plan to call for an investigation of Ott's chief deputy for malfeasance.

Meanwhile, at least two state investigations regarding Ott's well-being already are underway, a Salt Lake County councilman said Wednesday, though the Utah Attorney General's Office and Department of Human Services declined to confirm or comment on those efforts.

While some members of the County Council spoke Wednesday of potentially reducing the salaries of Ott and his chief deputy, Julie Dole, or creating a resolution calling for the longtime recorder's resignation, others were left feeling that they had done everything they can and should do to address the problem.

It's the latest swell of public concern over Ott. A series of events over the past eight months have added to worries that the 64-year-old county recorder may be suffering from health issues that are preventing him from effectively serving in his $180,000 per year, taxpayer-paid position.

Last week, an audit found that Ott has "very little oversight or involvement" in his office, and a complaint was filed with the Utah Attorney General's Office alleging that the recorder's "failing health has made him a target for exploitation, specifically from members of his staff."

County employees and others have accused Dole and office aide Karmen Sanone — who has been identified by court documents and social media as Ott's girlfriend, fiancee or wife — of taking advantage of Ott to stay in their appointed positions.

Those worries extended to the County Council on Tuesday, when several council members told Ott they worried he was being "manipulated."

Dole and Sanone have repeatedly denied those allegations, but the women routinely answer on Ott's behalf — often when he's being directly asked a question — and have told the Deseret News that he's running the recorder's office as he always has but isn't a "detail leader."

Dole did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls Wednesday requesting comment.

Investigations

Shon Harris, who called himself a concerned resident, said Dole's insistence that Ott is running the recorder's office is "obviously contrary" to what the County Council witnessed Tuesday, as Ott could not coherently answer questions about his office or even recall his chief deputy's name, even though she was sitting next to him.

That's why Harris and Jeremy Roberts said they and several others have decided to work with attorneys to begin drafting a formal complaint to the Salt Lake County District Attorney to call for an investigation of Dole for malfeasance.

"After months and months — almost a year — of repeated statements from Julie, there's enough of us that think she's being dishonest and made claims about the welfare of Gary Ott we know not to be true," said Roberts, who last week filed a complaint with the Utah Attorney General's Office, calling for an investigation into Ott's well-being.

"(Dole) has claimed that other than shingles, he's fine. But after (Tuesday), I don't think there's a single person on Earth who thinks that's true," he said.

Roberts said he believes Dole's actions amount to a level of dishonesty that she could be charged with malfeasance.

Because Dole is an appointed public officer, only Ott has the power to remove her from her position — unless the district attorney charges her with malfeasance in office.

"She has so damaged the reputation of the recorder's office, and she has so hurt the integrity of her position that I think she needs to be investigated and possibly removed from office," Roberts said. "And I think she meets the judicial requirements for that."

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge, pointed to a 1961 Utah Supreme Court case, State v. Guerts, that states malfeasance in office has "acquired a commonly understood meaning."

"It requires an intentional act or omission relating to the duties of a public office, which amounts to a crime, or which involves a substantial breach of the trust imposed upon the official by the nature of his office, and which conduct is of such a character as to offend against the commonly accepted standards of honesty and morality," the ruling states.

Cassell said it's difficult to say whether Dole could be charged with malfeasance because it would be left up to an investigation.

Related

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he would treat the complaint like "every other issue that's brought into my office and give it a review for validity," but he declined to "speculate" on whether it would be worth investigating.

"But what I can say (is) what transpired (Tuesday) was, on a personal level, something that was very tragic," Gill said.

"We all need to own the obvious that we have an individual that is compromised and everything is not right. For us to walk around thinking everything is fine is really a disservice," he said. "It's intellectually dishonest."

If Gill does in fact take up an investigation of Dole, it would run parallel with two other state investigations currently underway, according to Salt Lake County Councilman Steve DeBry.

"I do know the attorney general's office is investigating for elder abuse," DeBry said in an interview Wednesday, though the Deseret News' attempts to confirm that with the office were declined by spokesman Dan Burton.

DeBry also said a Utah Department of Human Services investigation regarding Ott's well-being is underway. A public records request from the Deseret News for confirmation and details of the investigation was declined due to privacy issues. The Deseret News has appealed the denial.

Based on what he witnessed Tuesday, DeBry said he "does not believe Gary is directing his office," but the County Council must wait until the investigations are complete before anything more can be done.

"We need to get behind the investigations and see what they come up with and see if there's any kind of manipulation or elder abuse under the statute," he said. "If that's the case and they determine there's issues, then we have something to go with. But until that investigation is complete, we don't have anything to go on."

Council action

Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she intends to draft a resolution to form a council opinion on Ott's situation, though whether that position would be to call for a resignation remains to be seen. As of Wednesday, Newton said she hadn't had the chance to collaborate with other council members on the opinion.

"We want to make sure we're writing something that's respectful of Gary, that talks about his years of service, but also makes clear what we think the next steps should be," she said. "I just don't know yet what that's going to look like."

Councilman Richard Snelgrove said his "heart goes out" to Ott, but he's also concerned that taxpayers aren't "getting their money's worth" when it comes to his salary.

"This can't go on for the next four years until he stands for re-election in 2020," he said, adding that "everything's on the table," including possible reduction of Ott's or Dole's salaries.

Snelgrove also said a couple of state lawmakers — Reps. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, and Craig Hall, R-West Valley City — have expressed interest in pursuing some sort of legislation to create a mechanism to address situations when elected officials' fitness of duty is called into question. The two legislators did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

DeBry said the County Council has "exhausted" everything in its power to address the "dilemma" according to current state law.

"I know … the whole council is frustrated," he said. "The bottom line is, we want to make sure Gary's OK. We want to make sure he's not being manipulated or used.

"To anybody with common sense who sees and hears Gary speak or try to answer questions, it's self-evident that he's not running his office. It's a sad commentary, but somebody's got to be running the show in there, and it's certainly not him."

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