Utah Dept. Of Agriculture Audit Reveals Conflicts Of Interest, Misuse Of Public Funds Under Former Leader
Nov 18, 2020, 11:47 PM | Updated: Nov 19, 2020, 5:23 am
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A state audit released Wednesday revealed several instances of improper behavior, undisclosed conflicts of interest and concerns over the cannabis program at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF).
“Back in January we started getting some whistleblower complaints,” Utah State Auditor John Dougall said.
In March, Dougall met with the department’s new commissioner, Logan Wilde, about the need for an audit. Dougall’s office launched an investigation in June. More than six months later he said, “Yes, we found some concerns. But the agency is looking to say, how do they strengthen their operations and try and minimize the risk of these going forward?”
The audit describes “weaknesses” in UDAF’s environment that “increased the risk of non-compliance and misuse of public funds.”
“We don’t typically name names in the audit because our audit is of an organization and not the individuals,” Dougall said.
Still, the report contains plenty of references to the former commissioner of UDAF, Kerry Gibson, appointed to the position by Gov. Gary Herbert in April 2019.
The audit shows Gibson used his assigned state vehicle for trips outside of “official state business.” The geotracking device in the vehicle showed it visited Bear Lake twice.
The report states, “the former commissioner stated he had a meeting with a local official on one of the trips. However, due to the location of the vehicle, the timing of the trips and the lack of any evidence indicating that this trip related to official UDAF business, this travel appeared to be personal.”
The vehicle also visited Las Vegas and several sports complexes. The audit also shows Gibson and others improperly upgraded hotels and flights during work trips and submitted duplicate reimbursements.
“Basically, we have a flashlight that we can shine where the public typically can’t see to identify opportunities for improvement within organizations in state and local government,” Dougall said of his office.
In a letter to Dougall, Wilde said Gibson and others he hired ”engaged in certain activities that violated state and departmental policies and resulted in an environment that did not accurately reflect the values and mission of the department.”
“We didn’t look at every program within the agency. We didn’t look at every activity being performed,” Dougall said.
But his office did look at concerns over how the UDAF chose to award licenses to companies applying to become cannabis growers. For example, the report said during the application period, Gibson and a former director at the department visited the facilities of a particular applicant.
Citing state law, the audit said, “an evaluation committee member should not have contacted or visited [the applicant] during the cannabis grower license award process.”
The audit shows Gibson’s former director and former PIO at the department operated a public relations firm before and during their employment. That firm reportedly represented a person “who subsequently became a principal” of the cannabis company applying for a license.
“The former director asserted that she had no conflicts of interest, and the possible conflict of interest was undisclosed,” the audit said. “Non-compliance with the disclosure requirement impairs transparency of the process.”
“Clearly there were concerns about possible cooperation among certain participants on that committee and lack of disclosure of possible conflicts of interest,” Dougall said.
In a statement released Wednesday, Wilde said the UDAF “takes the concerns raised in the auditor’s report and the department’s responsibility to address these concerns seriously.
“The department appreciates the time and effort by the auditor’s office in bringing the irregularities and issues to its attention so that UDAF can continue to take appropriate steps to address the concerns raised in the audit report. The department is committed to moving forward expeditiously to improve internal policies and procedures in carrying out its mission to support agriculture, food safety, and to support producers throughout the state.”
The full audit can be seen here.