The firm at the center of a scathing audit of operations at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has a strong connection to Weber County, helping handle public relations and communications for the county government apparatus.
The company, The Dicio Group, has also provided public relations for True North of Utah, a Northern Utah medical cannabis grower that also figures in the audit completed by Utah State Auditor. True North also operates a cannabis dispensary in South Ogden.
And notwithstanding the critical portrayal of some of the firm’s dealings with the state agency that comes through in the audit, Weber County leaders laud the company’s work here. Dicio Group has provided communications services for county commissioners since 2017 and the firm reached an accord earlier this year to provide similar services for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. In all, the county has paid Dicio Group $605,837.03 for services since 2017, according to data on transparent.utah.gov, the state government website containing data on government spending.
“Weber County is very happy with the services the DICIO staff provides. As a county and at the sheriff’s office, our communication and transparency efforts are more ambitious than any other county in the state and most in the country,” the three commissioners, Jim Harvey, Gage Froerer and Scott Jenkins, said in a statement to the Standard-Examiner. “On countless occasions, the DICIO Group staff has been available at a moment’s notice on weekends, in the middle of the night and on holidays to make sure a project is completed on time and is handled in an urgent matter.”
For its part, the Dicio Group said in a statement in response to the audit that the audit doesn’t offer company reps’ side of things. Dicio Group principals Natalie Callahan and Sasha Clark served as director of operations and public information officer, respectively, for the agriculture department during the period covered in the audit, April 2019 through January 2020. That’s when Kerry Gibson, a former Weber County commissioner and also a target of criticism in the audit, led the state agency.
Callahan and Clark “gave full and complete answers to questions put to them,” says the Dicio statement, issued by their legal reps. “The report fails to include the substance of their responses or the responses themselves. Our clients’ responses to the written questions fully refute the report’s findings as to our clients.”
In a statement to the Standard-Examiner on Wednesday, Gibson offered similar comments. He said operations under his leadership were done “100% by the book” and he lamented that the report didn’t offer his responses to auditors, though he too cooperated with them. Gibson was put on administrative leave near the end of his tenure by Gov. Gary Herbert owing to operations under his leadership, according to the audit, and he formally stepped down last January when he launched his bid, ultimately unsuccessful, for the 1st District U.S. House seat.
The audit, focused on operations within the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, or UDAF, doesn’t name individuals or companies, like True North. It’s meant as a review of the agency’s operations to help remedy perceived shortcomings. But the review refers to the titles of UDAF employees and their actions and, by context, their identities are clear. Likewise, though True North isn’t named, its identity is apparent through context.
Broadly, the audit questions actions of Gibson and/or Callahan that could have factored in selection last year by UDAF of some of the eight growers in Utah for the state’s new medical cannabis program. It also outlines “questionable” use of state-owned vehicles in the department during Gibson’s tenure, hotel and flight upgrades for official travel that violate state policy and improper requests for travel reimbursement. It says Callahan and Clark received bonuses near the end of their service in the department in late 2019 — $8,000 and $4,000, respectively — without “detailed written justification,” as required by UDAF policy. It also says the two former UDAF employees tapped into sick leave pay near the end of their tenures without apparently providing justification, as required by state rules.
Though Gibson, Callahan and Clark lamented that their responses weren’t included in the audit, John Dougall, the state auditor, said they figured in the report.
The agency’s audits “focus on weaknesses within the organization, not on specific people,” Dougall said in a message to the Standard-Examiner. “But the individuals mentioned provided answers to questions which influenced the audit. Some statements were substantiated as true and others not. Their answers provided context and dispelled certain allegations we received.”
$605,857.03 IN FEESThe county entered into a contract with The Dicio Group to handle communications efforts in 2017. The agreement with the sheriff’s office, also to provide communications and public relations services, was formalized last February.
According to transparent.utah.gov, the fees paid by Weber County to Dicio totaled $57,799.89 in 2017, $94,500 in 2018, $168,649.71 in 2019 and $284,907.43 in 2020. That makes for a total of $605,857.03. Box Elder County paid Dicio Group $198,000 for services there in 2019 and 2020 while Washington County paid the firm $43,750 this year, according to data on the website.
The Weber County commissioners in their statement noted that “multiple” Dicio staffers serve the county. The company, they went on, details its charges.
“They provide Weber County with detailed invoices for their services provided every month. We in turn review and audit those invoices before payment is remitted. In the second quarter 2020, our attorneys and comptroller reviewed our process related to DICIO and found that they are in compliance with sound accounting practices,” the commissioners said.
The commissioners also noted the services provided above and beyond what’s outlined in the contract with the firm. In 2019, the company helped handle communications efforts connected to the Weber County Fair because the prior service provider opted out. “The 2019 Weber County Fair saw a double-digit increase in attendance,” the commissioners noted.
The Dicio Group also provided services unforeseen in the contract with the county this year in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal CARES Act funding the county is receiving will cover the cost of Dicio’s efforts related to the pandemic.
“Their communications efforts were swift and critical as we outlined closures, businesses opening, masking up, social distancing and advertising a successful CARES grant program. This program infused federal dollars into over 600 businesses,” the commissioners said. “They also handled countless other issues related to this pandemic.”
The statement said county expenditures connected to Dicio are comparable to what other counties pay. “We hope a comparison is made with other public relations and marketing firms in Utah that are paid by other government agencies. As we compare the number of communications staff other agencies have internally, we find these expenditures are in line with those amounts,” they said.