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Deseret Morning News: Political ruin familiar sight

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S.L. County has long history of scandals, foul-ups

Salt Lake County government is having a bad year. So what else is new?

The county has a long-standing history of scandals and foul-ups resulting in embarrassment and sometimes even political ruin.

Salt Lake County is also a well-known political graveyard. Various politicians have tried to use county government as a springboard to higher office with decidedly mixed results:

Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman talks on the phone before a horse ride on which she was made aware of a recommendation she be charged with felonies. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
Former county commissioner Mary Callaghan, who at one time told the Deseret Morning News that she wanted eventually to run for the U.S. Senate, left county government when the new form of government took effect. Other than a ripple of negative publicity when she accepted two years of payment that she previously said she wouldn't accept, she has not been heard from since.

Former commissioner Brent Overson didn't even make it through the Republican County Convention this year in his bid for a seat on the county council and lost a bid for a seat on Granite's school board in 2003. Former commissioner Jim Bradley, now a councilman, was slaughtered in his 1996 challenge to Gov. Mike Leavitt and has also lost a race for Salt Lake City mayor.

"There is no system of government that would restrain a single individual from acting the way they do and doing something that is wrong," said Ted Wilson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and former director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He said there seems to be a "diffusion of authority" at the county level of government.

"We need to streamline government there and hold one person responsible and have one person everybody reports to," he said. Such a plan, Wilson said, would limit the numbers of people sneaking through the system.

Councilman Steve Harmsen said that a lot of the recent scandals could, very easily, have gone unnoticed under the old, commission form of government. With seven council members and a separate mayor, there are too many people watching everybody else for the old backroom dealings of county government to go unnoticed for long, he said.

"The only reason these issues are at play is because of the council form of government," Harmsen said.

Scandals graphic; click to view PDF file
View summary of recent scandals in Salt Lake County government. (PDF requires Acrobat Reader)
As early as 1976, there were reported breaks in the system.

Salt Lake County Commissioner William L. Hutchinson was involved in behavior called "improper for an official" when he failed to fully report campaign contributions and reportedly exhibited conflicts of interest. He also took flak and faced charges for allegedly harboring a runaway juvenile, which were later dismissed. On top of that, in 1978 Hutchinson endured charges of homosexual activity with a minor, a trial that ended in a hung jury. He ran for re-election but lost and reportedly left office with ambivalence.

Salt Lake County Treasurer Arthur L. Monson was charged with violating the Public Employees Ethics Act by using county staff and equipment to run his private business, a second-degree felony theft, in 1983. A jury acquitted him on one of the charges later that same year, a state judge threw out a second and prosecutors agreed to drop a third charge.

In 1986, secretaries Debra Sauers and Shauna Clark accused Salt Lake County Attorney Ted L. Cannon of forcible sexual abuse. According to Clark, Cannon physically touched her in an unwanted, sexual manner, and made lewd comments and gestures toward her. Cannon entered a no-contest plea to assault and spent 25 days in jail, and Clark ended up with a $68,000 settlement from the county.

In 1988, Salt Lake County Commissioner Dave Watson was arrested for drunken driving, a charge to which he pleaded guilty. He was forced to resign from office. He was slapped with a $1,000 fine, a 60-day suspended jail sentence and two days of community service, which he spent washing county vehicles.

But rarely has trouble matched the concentrated form it has had in recent months.

The gas card and vehicle use scandal that began in May took down the county's former chief financial officer Randy Allen, auditor Craig Sorensen and the mayor's general counsel Greg Curtis.

"Somehow people got the idea down there that they could get away with things that begin very minor, yet they become major with time," Wilson said. He said the mayor-council form of government has already lost trust on the street.

Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman established a commission to look into the county's vehicle use policies, which has yet to come to a conclusion or issue recommendations. The council established its own whistle-blower policy. Charges and rumors flew continually. Wilson said the process has potential, but people in office need to promise the public to be better.

"An election year is a good time for people to reform government with their vote," said Wilson.

Just as the vehicle scandal was beginning to wind down, news broke that Salt Lake District Attorney David Yocom was looking into Workman's hiring practices regarding two staffers who work for the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Valley. Yocom conducted an investigation and turned over the decision to a panel of four other county attorneys (or their representatives). The panel announced Wednesday it found sufficient evidence to charge Workman with two felonies. Yocom is to say Tuesday if he will actually file those charges.

"They need to tighten down the screws and make sure it doesn't happen again," Wilson said. The county, he says, needs to retain its watchdog responsibility.

"People who get sucked in let their ego and money get the best of them," Bradley said. "We need to see that issues like this don't happen again."