SALT LAKE CITY -- A prominent cabinet member accuses Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell of interfering in a child abuse investigation and undermining the agency that was handling the case.
Documents released by the Utah Department of Human Services show executive director Palmer DePaulis offered his retirement to Gov. Gary Herbert in protest.
"I am now being undermined by the Lt. Governor and I believe that he will retaliate against me," DePaulis wrote Herbert on Dec. 17, according to documents released late Thursday.
DePaulis accused Bell of having a "personal interest" in the child welfare case.
Bell defended his intervention in a statement sent out Friday afternoon, saying a family reached out to him in 2011 about the way caseworkers were treating them.
He said the audit was not intended to influence the outcome of the case and had nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the underlying claims against the family.
Bell said he first passed along the complaint to DePaulis, who told him it was being handled. However, after new information came to his attention, he decided it would be "irresponsible not to investigate further."
"This was a neutral, objective way to get to the bottom of the conflicting claims," Bell said.
The people involved and the nature of the allegations have not been publicly revealed. Documents and correspondence released to The Associated Press were blacked out and provided no details.
DePaulis has since said that he doesn't intend to retire. He wrote in his December letter that the case "was handled appropriately and took its proper course," despite Bell's intervention.
The documents don't reveal an outcome in the case.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings confirmed Thursday that his office and the FBI are investigating abuse-of-power allegations against Bell. The FBI declined comment.
Herbert, meanwhile, told reporters Thursday that DePaulis is expected to retire -- an assertion the 68-year-old department head contradicts.
"Palmer has not made any decision about retirement," Department of Human Services spokeswoman Elizabeth Sollis said Friday.
It wasn't immediately clear why Herbert and DePaulis disagreed on his retirement intentions. But Herbert also said Thursday that he stands by Bell. "I've got all the confidence in the world for Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who has not done anything inappropriate. He is honest as the day is long and is a man without guile."
DePaulis is a widely respected public servant in Utah -- a Democrat who has worked for four Republican governors and a former attorney general. He was a tax commissioner for Govs. Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker. He worked for Gov. Jon Huntsman as head of the former Utah Department of Community and Culture.
When Huntsman cut short a second term to become U.S. ambassador to China, his successor -- Herbert -- appointed DePaulis to be head of the Department of Human Services.
DePaulis offered to retire as early as Nov. 14 in a meeting with Bell and two top aides, then complained he was being pushed to leave by Dec. 31, his letter to Herbert said. "I now find myself at odds with the Lt. Governor, and he expresses no confidence in me," DePaulis wrote.
Other correspondence released Thursday highlighted the disagreement between DePaulis and Bell, although the emails were heavily redacted and provided little context.
"I'm just not buying it, Palmer," Bell wrote early on in an email titled "Highly Confidential and Personal."
In another email. Bell wrote of "two colliding alternate realities. It's very sad to me."
Bell has commissioned an audit of the department's Division of Child and Family Services. A 47-page copy of the audit released to The Associated Press was redacted and omitted key findings of the case. But the copy did show that division officials strongly objected to the findings.
Utah legislators were hard-pressed Friday to make sense of the dispute. They said it doesn't compare to the troubles involving Attorney General John Swallow, the subject of another federal investigation. Swallow has been accused of being part of a bribery scheme.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said: "It again raises the question for us as legislators and the executive branch whether we need to focus more attention on some rules and some ethics that will help prevent some of that going forward."