Bluffdale to investigate ‘criminal’ allegations against mayoral candidate, former fire chief

Oct 15, 2021, 10:16 AM | Updated: Aug 29, 2022, 5:21 pm

UPDATE: Charges were filed in August 2022.

BLUFFDALE, Utah — The Bluffdale City Council is set to launch an investigation into “additional” allegations that are “criminal in nature” against the city’s former fire chief, who is running for mayor, just weeks before the election.

The city council met behind closed doors for what the city called “investigative proceedings regarding allegations of criminal misconduct” against John Roberts, who worked as a firefighter for the city for more than 40 years and ran the department full-time for 10 years.

The lifelong Bluffdale resident is running for mayor on a promise to work for and with the people of the city to bring more business.

But about two months out from the election, voter Debie Wangsgard was confused about conflicting information she had heard about why and how Roberts left his firefighting job with the city.

“I think all voters should do their own research,” Wangsgard said.

She did her research on Roberts and said, “There was information in there I didn’t expect to get.”

Wangsgard learned and KSL-TV has confirmed through public records requests that last year the city received complaints from firefighters that alleged Roberts had paid employees for hours they didn’t work and didn’t provide his firefighters the proper training or gear.

“The complaints were that people were getting paid while not working,” Wangsgard said. “It was completely unexpected.”

In March 2020, city manager Mark Reid emailed Roberts, notifying him that he was being placed on paid administrative leave.

In an email to the mayor and city council days later he told them, “There is no question in my mind that (Roberts) would retaliate against (the firefighters who filed the complaints) if he knew who they were. He was very forceful in denying all of the payroll issues.”

Reid noted he’d been prepared to bring on an outside attorney to investigate the claims. He placed Roberts on paid leave March 27 as he looked into the complaints.

Reid recorded pay for firefighters “who did not work in order to show four on duty,” citing Christmas 2019 as an example, according to a copy of his notes from the investigation. The document was provided to KSL through a public records request.

Roberts hadn’t requested additional holiday pay in budget talks, according to Reid’s notes. He documented allegations that employees who made suggestions would lose shifts, along with firefighters’ “fear to complain.”

The review noted other concerns, including a lack of safety equipment and employees who don’t have the proper training for their roles. It noted employees said he “splits involves in order to sidestep policy” and found “contracts to relatives’ businesses for maintenance and repair.”

Roberts agreed to an interview but ultimately didn’t make himself available Thursday. In a Facebook post earlier this week, he denied any wrongdoing.

Roberts said the city didn’t provide the money to properly staff the department and he simply tried to find a way to fill the gaps.

“Despite what the misinformed social media posts would indicate, there was no basis for criminal charges, nor were criminal charges ever investigated,” Roberts wrote in the post. “It was simply a parting of ways, and I continued to remain eligible for rehire by the City of Bluffdale.”

Reid said he began investigating three complaints from firefighters but ultimately suggested the city council allow Roberts to leave the job, rather than continue the review.

Doing so allowed the city to focus on responding to the earliest stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, replacing a city attorney who left to take another job, and taking steps to make sure the volunteer firefighters were safe, Reid said.

He declined an interview but gave details about Roberts’ departure in a prepared statement.

Roberts signed an agreement setting the terms of his departure 19 days after the first complaint was filed, according to Reid. Roberts resigned in April 2020 and received severance, collecting another nine months of pay for $71,000 and ending the city’s investigation.

“I actually can’t speak about that investigation,” said Bluffdale mayoral candidate Natalie Hall.

Hall declined to talk about the allegations against her opponent. She’s the city’s emergency program manager and currently on leave to campaign. She’s also been the subject of city investigations into complaints that found no merit to complaints alleging she was overpaid and campaigned while working.

“When I announced I was running for mayor there were false accusations that came out and the investigations that were done were thorough. And I’m grateful for that,” Hall said. “And they were found to be baseless.”

Wangsgard said she did investigations on Natalie also, “because I was hearing negative things. So, this was not just a one-sided thing.”

Wangsgard knows Hall but says her research on Roberts was not for anyone’s campaign but for herself and to inform other voters.

“I believe we need to stand for truth,” she said.

The city attorney said they will use an outside agency for the investigation into Roberts because of the potential conflict of interest.

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Bluffdale to investigate ‘criminal’ allegations against mayoral candidate, former fire chief