‘High crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance’: KSL Investigates lack of action after scathing report against county clerk/auditor
Dec 13, 2023, 10:35 PM | Updated: Dec 14, 2023, 1:10 pm
VERNAL — An independent investigation that cost taxpayers $150,000 found Uintah County’s clerk/auditor “engaged in conduct that meets the standard of high crimes, misdemeanors, and malfeasance in office.”
The findings state that Uintah County Clerk/Auditor Michael Wilkins mismanaged county money, testified falsely under oath, violated a government records law, and demonstrated a pattern of unprofessional and potentially harassing conduct.
Months after the scathing report was completed, no action has been taken against Wilkins. The KSL Investigators went to Vernal to find out why.
“Laws have been broken, trust has been broken,” former county commissioner Bart Haslem told KSL TV.
In 2022, Haslem was one of the county commissioners who hired an outside law firm to look into allegations against Wilkins. The firm, Kunzler, Bean & Adamson, completed their investigation in April 2023 and gave it to the county.
The 50-page report states that “the totality of Mr. Wilkins’ actions meets the standard” for removal from office.
“They found stuff that I wasn’t even aware of,” Haslem said.
Haslem’s term as a commissioner ended this year.
He is now one of four taxpayers who submitted the findings to a judge in November, initiating legal proceedings to remove Wilkins from his position.
The investigation lays out several findings against Wilkins, including that he authorized nearly $3.4 million of county money for optional employee retirement plans, without the county commission’s approval, benefiting himself to the tune of roughly $75,000; that he voided hundreds of checks the county should have paid out to unclaimed property – totaling more than $27,000; and that he “testified falsely” under oath in front of a district court judge during an appeal of a disorderly conduct charge “directly related to the performance of his duties as County Clark/Auditor.”
The investigative report states the findings meet the steep evidentiary threshold of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required to remove Wilkins from office, which left Haslem and others to wonder why – after seven months – no action had been taken by the county prosecutor.
In mid-November, an Eighth District Court judge sent a letter with the taxpayers’ petition to Uintah County Attorney Jaymon Thomas, asking him to “act accordingly.”
“But nothing ever happened,” Haslem said.
In a statement to the KSL Investigators, Thomas said his office faces an inherent conflict of interest due to its obligation to represent county officials, so he passed the report on to the Utah Attorney General’s Office.
That office told us, “We believe this issue is best resolved by local officials and the Uintah County voters themselves.”
A spokesperson in the Utah Attorney General’s Office did not provide a specific date for when the office received the investigative report but said it was provided by the month of August, and possibly earlier.
It is unclear what action, if any, Thomas took in response to the judge’s correspondence regarding the petition submitted by taxpayers last month. Beyond sending a prepared written statement by email, Thomas did not respond to multiple inquiries from the KSL Investigators seeking additional information.
When the KSL Investigators went to Vernal, hoping to get some answers for taxpayers, Wilkins was initially reluctant to discuss the investigative findings.
“I won’t make any comment on that,” Wilkins told KSL-TV when confronted about the petition filed in court.
“I think you’re looking at a document that is not correct,” Wilkins added.
When asked what was incorrect in the 50-page memorandum, he said, “The entire document.”
When asked specifically about one finding in the report, that he had been convicted of disorderly conduct, he said “No, I wasn’t.”
Court records show that conviction in August 2022. The case stemmed from an angry outburst toward the county’s human resources director.
During Wilkins’ bench trial, a witness testified about hearing Wilkins use an offensive curse word in the tense encounter.
On cross-examination, Wilkins said he would never use that kind of language.
“Using the word that was referred to is not in my vocabulary,” Wilkins testified under oath in court.
But prosecutors played an audio recording of Wilkins using the word in question.
“Mr. Wilkins testified that he would never say ‘G** damn,’ that that was not in his vocabulary,” the judge is heard saying in courtroom audio obtained by KSL-TV. “And I believed him. And then I got to hear him say it. In his own words, on audio. Which indicates to me that he is willing to mislead the Court, under oath. And because of that, I have chosen to disregard his testimony entirely.”
The judge found Wilkins guilty of disorderly conduct.
Wilkins, who was first elected to his current role in 2002, has been scrutinized by outside agencies multiple times in recent years.
In 2021, Utah’s state auditor released a review of Uintah County that uncovered 13 specific problems “spanning the entire spectrum of government accounting.”
State Auditor John Dougall noted at the end of the audit that the county’s inability to oversee finances was a concern.
“The Uintah County leadership’s disagreement with the findings noted above highlights the lack of understanding and lack of responsibility with which they approach execution and oversight of financial reporting, which the auditor finds concerning,” Dougall wrote.
Also in 2021, the Weber County Attorney’s Office found “multiple breakdowns in communication” but did not find “sufficient evidence” of “clear violations of law” after that office was asked to Uintah County to investigate potential financial wrongdoing.
After his initial reluctance to speak with KSL TV in November, Wilkins later returned, with a document in hand.
“I just want to make sure you have both reports,” he said and provided a printed version of the 2021 report from Weber County.
Haslem told KSL the Uintah County Commission approved hiring an outside law firm to investigate Wilkins in 2022 after new allegations came forward.
Wilkins insists the latest investigative findings are nothing more than the result of a “witch hunt,” and said he feels he is being transparent about what is going on with taxpayers and would discuss the issue more if the KSL Investigators would turn off our news camera. We declined to stop recording.
Haslem said he feels responsible for the taxpayer money that was spent on the investigation. He recalled a conversation he said he had with the county attorney when Haslem was still a commissioner and weighing whether to support the expenditure for hiring the law firm.
Haslem said he told Thomas that “If it comes back and there’s nothing found, we’ll drop this and we’ll move on.” But he asked Thomas, “If there’s something found, will you take the procedures that you need to, to follow through with this?”’ Haslem told KSL that Thomas said, “Yes.”
Haslem said he still wants to see the legal process move forward, “We need to give us, and Mike … we need to give our clerk-auditor the day in court.”
While Utah law lays out options for both the Uintah County Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office to pursue the petition to remove Wilkins from office in court, it is unclear whether taxpayers and citizens have any legal recourse if both offices choose to do nothing.
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