Ex-fire official: Audit showing misuse of funds is unfair

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Two former top officials with Salt Lake County's firefighting agency may have violated state ethics laws and misused public funds, citing purchases of iPads and Apple watches and trips to spring training in Arizona, Utah's state auditor said Wednesday.

After five months of review, state Auditor John Dougall released audits that found former Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen and his former deputy Gaylord Scott may have spent Unified Fire Agency money on travel to California, baseball spring training in Arizona as well as computers, tablets and other technology that appear to be excessive and mostly for personal use.

Dougall said prosecutors should investigate the matter. He also recommends that the men repay more than $100,000 each for questionable incentive pay they received and that the Unified Fire Authority's board seek to recover the excessive travel costs. Dougall also advised the board to take steps to tighten its controls and oversight.

Jensen and Scott both left their positions last year amid questions about spending. Jensen said he left to start a new career path, and Scott said he was leaving for health reasons.

Jensen, who is now a Salt Lake County councilman, criticized the audit Wednesday night, saying it was unfair and one-sided. "There's things in the audit that are just simply inaccuracies, distortions, mischaracterizations," he said.

Everything the audit flagged can be explained, Jensen said, though he said he wasn't ready Wednesday night to go into any of the specific allegations and explain them.

Jensen said he had not seen the report until Wednesday afternoon and did not get any advance chance to respond, unlike the Unified Fire Authority, which received the report last week and was given time to prepare a response.

A number listed for Scott was disconnected, and he could not be reached for comment.

In a statement responding to the reports, the Unified Fire Authority board said it is taking steps to increase controls and oversight. The board said it would consult with its lawyers about recovering the funds and a potential criminal investigation into the misuse of taxpayer money.

Dougall's reports said trips to California and Arizona appeared to have little to do with work. For example, the Unified officials said the purpose of the Phoenix trip was to visit fire stations and review architectural designs. However, an itinerary from the seven-day visit showed only one day was spent at fire stations and working on agency business. Other days were marked for baseball spring training, personal matters and travel.

For some trips, their hotel and meal spending exceeded daily limits, and they put many miles on rental cars despite staying within walking distance of their meetings, according to the reports.

The audits found that between 2011 and 2016, both men spent about $25,000 in public money on technology, including iMacs, iPads and Apple watches.

Both returned most of the equipment when they left the agency, but Dougall said investigators found files on the computers that indicated they were mostly for personal use.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office received Dougall's Wednesday and is reviewing whether it warrants any charges.

In the meantime, Jensen will face a new investigation into his spending as a current county councilman.

Salt Lake County Auditor Scott Tingley said Wednesday's audit findings were concerning, and his office plans to scrutinize Jensen's spending, particularly travel expenses, and the spending of eight other members of the county council as well. Tingley said that investigation will take about a month.

Tingley said if he finds any misused funds, he'll present it to county officials, and any potential illegal uses would be reported to law enforcement.

Jensen said he welcomes that report, saying he thinks it will be helpful and that he has had minimal travel as a councilman.

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