SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker is pushing a bill in direct response to a scathing state audit that found a former Unified Fire Authority boss spent tens of thousands of taxpayer money to buy Apple products and expensive cameras for his own use.
The bill comes at the request of State Auditor John Dougall and Utah prosecutors, who declined to file criminal charges last year after concluding a "loophole" in Utah's public corruption statutes would make prosecution impossible.
At the time, prosecutors also cited an "absence of accountability" since the purchases and other issues were all ultimately approved through a "loose management structure."
In front of a panel of House lawmakers last week, HB163 sponsor Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, didn't identify former Unified Fire Authority deputy chief Gaylord Scott by name, but mentioned the audit, and read off a list of Apple products auditors found Scott had purchased with taxpayer money yet used "almost exclusively for personal use."
The list included two iMacs, iPads, two Nikon cameras, several camera lenses, an Apple Watch, two iPhones, MacBooks and a GoPro camera, Hall said.
"These were all things that were purchased with government money, and since they were purchased with government money, they were government property," Hall said.
Utah prosecutors' 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.
Yet after the case was handed over to prosecutors, Hall said they declined to file charges because they faced a dilemma with state law.
Current state law is "very clear" about the misuse of public money, but it's not clear regarding the misuse of public property, Hall said.
"That's the purpose of this bill," Hall said. "It prohibits, clearly, unauthorized personal use of public property."
If "someone wants to buy a really nice camera," Hall said, they can either "steal the money from work" or use the money at work to buy the camera, yet only use it for themselves. Currently, Utah law outlaws the first scenario, but not clearly enough the second scenario, Hall said.
"That's what we're trying to avoid is a bad actor (that) can manipulate the way things are purchased to use government resources for personal use," Hall said.
Dave Carlson, assistant attorney general, joined Hall to lobby lawmakers to support the bill. He said it would be useful to "close some loopholes that we see in the public corruption statutes."
Dougall also urged support of the bill, noting that such cases aren't extremely common, but when they do happen "they're usually big issues" and the public is left wondering "why wasn't more done?"
The bill won an endorsement from the House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday. It now is waiting to be considered on the House floor.