Auditor: Recorder's office may have violated nepotism rule

Auditor: Recorder's office may have violated nepotism rule

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — After conducting a review of the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office, Utah State Auditor John Dougall has found the county's nepotism ordinance may have been violated.

The auditor also found that Recorder Gary Ott has not been in financial control of his own office as far back as January 2014, shortly after he won re-election.

That's according to a letter Dougall sent to County Council Chairman Steve DeBry on Monday and obtained by KSL.

Dougall declined an interview with KSL on Monday because the "letter speaks for itself," said his spokeswoman, Nicole Toomey Davis.

In the letter, Dougall says an employee — Karmen Sanone, Ott's office aide who's also currently embroiled in a legal battle with Ott's family to obtain guardianship over the troubled county recorder — "appears to have cohabited" with Ott.

Citing the county's ordinance that states no county officer may employ a relative or "household member" and that Sanone has "attempted to be appointed guardian" of Ott, Dougall said in the letter "this arrangement appears to have violated county ordinance."

"We believe that (Sanone) could reasonably be considered a 'household member' of the recorder," Dougall wrote.

Salt Lake County Auditor Scott Tingley said he worked with Dougall on his review of the recorder's office. Tingley said he and the state auditor went to interview Ott at his Salt Lake City home last month, but when they couldn't find him there, they went to North Ogden to interview Sanone at her home.

There, Sanone "disclosed to us that Mr. Ott had been 'under her care' for quite some time," Tingley said.

During his review of the recorder's office's finances from January 2014 to July 2017, "we found no indication that the recorder had performed any financial oversight of his office," and "financial oversight appears to have been delegated," the auditor wrote.

"In summary, we believe that inadequate financial oversight existed in the recorder's office," Dougall said. "We question the propriety of certain past expenditures and believe there is insufficient public accountability."

That finding is consistent with a county-led audit of Ott's office last year, when Tingley found that Ott has had "very little oversight or involvement" in his own office.

Tingley said possibilities of nepotism and a lack financial oversight are both concerning to him as county auditor.

"From a financial perspective, my concern is that there has been no financial oversight over how the resources have been spent in the recorder's office," he said. "Those responsibilities were completely delegated to the chief deputy, who has not been elected to be accountable to the people."

On nepotism, Tingley said the county's ordinance is supposed to protect against individuals benefiting financially from relationships with their bosses.

"Obviously, in this situation, it's pretty evident that the county recorder had a relationship with a subordinate, and she benefited financially because of that relationship," the county auditor said.

Dougall's letter comes the day before Ott's resignation date — made possible through a deal drafted by Ott's family, his independent attorney and county leaders, and signed by a judge.

Tuesday will be Ott's last official day in office, after holding the elected position since 2001.

In many ways, it will mark closure to more than a year-and-a-half-long saga in which county officials, employees and others have had mounting concerns about Ott's health and well-being.

Others have also accused Ott's chief deputy, Julie Dole, and Sanone of covering up the recorder's condition so they could keep their jobs. Both women have denied those allegations.

"I have no concerns with the State Auditor's letter," Dole said in a text Monday night, adding that the six-month long audit by the county "showed I have been and am running Recorder's Office well."

Sanone said she's "not all that concerned" with Dougall's findings, noting that a human resources review last year found no violation against the county's nepotism policy.

Sanone said she considered a "household member" to mean "each one contributes to the household finances." But when pressed on whether she and Ott have been living together, Sanone said: "I guess at this point it's a moot point since Gary will no longer be recorder after tomorrow."

When asked about the future of her employment with the county after Tuesday, Sanone declined to comment beyond: "I'll follow protocol and procedure."

According to the state auditor's letter, Sanone earned salary and benefits totaling more than $138,000 in 2015-16.

Dougall also noted that Sanone appeared to "regularly communicate" with Dole.

"Based on our observations and interviews, it appears that various individuals in the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office, including the chief deputy recorder, were aware of this relationship," the auditor wrote.

That leads to concerns that the relationship could have resulted in a potential violation of the County Officers and Employees Disclosure Act, Dougall said.

"We believe it was inappropriate for the recorder and (Dole) to allow (Sanone's) employment to continue in the manner that it did," he said.

Dougall also found that the Salt Lake County clerk was "unable to produce the written appointment" of Dole to deputy as required by county ordinance.

"We note, however, that other testimony and records appear to corroborate the recorder's intention of his appointment of (Dole)," he wrote.

Nonetheless, since Ott has been appointed a guardian, Dougall said: "We question the ability of the recorder to be liable for all official acts" of Dole.

"As such, we believe the chief deputy recorder now lacks authority regarding the financial oversight of the recorder's office," the auditor wrote.

DeBry confirmed he had received Dougall's letter Monday. He said he's forwarded the findings to county attorneys to determine the next steps.

"We'll do what's correct and legal and best," DeBry said.

The council is slated to discuss the topic during a work session at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office has been investigating issues surrounding Ott for months, said he "appreciates" the auditor's opinion, "but we'll have to look at (the issues) in the context of evidence, not speculation," when deciding whether to pursue any criminal action against any ordinance violations.

Gill said violations of county ordinances typically tend to be class B misdemeanors.

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