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DA's office investigating allegations against Bluffdale mayoral candidate

A campaign sign is displayed in Bluffdale for former Fire Chief John Roberts. (Matt Rascon, KSL-TV)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

BLUFFDALE — Voters choosing a new mayor in Bluffdale won't have the benefit of knowing whether prosecutors see complaints of misconduct against one candidate as violations of the law.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is reviewing new allegations against John Roberts, Bluffdale's former fire chief of more than a decade, now vying to lead the city as mayor. But the probe is still in the early stages, Gill said, and is unlikely to conclude by Election Day on Tuesday.

"I think everybody exercises their best judgment," Gill told KSL in an exclusive interview Wednesday. "Everybody has a presumption of innocence. That's a critical part of our system and I would urge them to lean into that."

Roberts resigned from his job as fire chief in April 2020 after some employees complained their colleagues at times received pay for shifts they didn't work. The three complaints, which KSL obtained through a public records request, also alleged Roberts didn't provide his firefighters the proper training or gear.

Roberts has denied any wrongdoing, contending the city didn't provide the money to properly staff the department and he simply tried to find ways to fill the gaps. If elected, he has said he'll make it a priority to bring more business to the city.

Gill declined to give a timeline on his review, telling KSL that trying to rush the investigation would compromise it. His office agreed to take on the investigation Monday.

The Bluffdale City Council voted in favor of the probe in a session closed to the press and public two weeks ago after receiving new information from firefighters.

"To not have acted on that would have been wrong," said Chief Warren James, the current chief of Bluffdale Fire and a friend of Roberts.

James said when firefighters came to him with "clarifying information" about the complaints against Roberts he needed to act.

"They were serious enough to me that I felt it appropriate to bring them to the city as soon as I was made aware of them," he said. "Regardless of the election or anything going on, I have a duty to act when I'm aware of something that has occurred inappropriately or incorrectly."

Roberts told KSL in a statement that if the allegations were as serious as the city would have people now believe, they would have investigated them a year and a half ago. He accused city officials of being biased in the election process and maintains that as fire chief, he always put residents and their safety first.

City leaders asked Gill's office to take over the investigation to avoid appearing as if they wanted to sway the election, said city attorney Todd Sheeran.

"We didn't want to be perceived as trying to find allegations against John," Sheeran said. He added in a prepared statement: "While timing is difficult since the election is around the corner, the city could not simply ignore the additional information."

Gill and the city have remained tight-lipped about the new complaints, declining to provide any details.

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Gill said he believes it's unfair to do so before his office reaches a conclusion about whether criminal charges are warranted. He urged voters in Bluffdale and the wider public not to draw any conclusions before a review is complete.

"There's a presumption of innocence. Please do not speculate," Gill said.

City Manager Mark Reid began investigating the complaints last year, but did not reach any conclusions.

In March 2020, Reid notified Bluffdale's mayor and city council that he believed Roberts would retaliate against firefighters who complained, according to city emails KSL obtained through a public records request.

Rather than continue with the probe, city leaders opted to negotiate a severance agreement with Roberts, allowing the longtime fire chief to resign in April 2020 and receive $71,000 in installments.

His opponent in the mayor's race, Natalie Hall, has declined to weigh in on his time at the fire department and has focused on her plans to lead the city through a period of breakneck growth.

They're vying to replace Mayor Derk Timothy, who is not seeking reelection.

Roberts came under scrutiny after a voter in Bluffdale sought more information about his departure from the fire department. Debie Wangsgard obtained documents through a records request, then posted them online.

"I believe we need to stand for truth," she told KSL earlier this month.

Wangsgard represents her neighborhood in a volunteer network that coordinates emergency responses in the event of an earthquake or other crisis. Wangsgard said she know knows Hall, who is the city's emergency program manager, through that organization. But Wangsgard said she wasn't seeking to help Hall's campaign and simply wanted to obtain accurate information.

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