OGDEN — When word of a police probe into Kerry Gibson, the former Weber County commissioner, first emerged in late 2017, he suggested political forces aligned against him were at play.
“I have reason to believe that public disclosure of this ‘investigation’ is prompted not by fact, but is politically motivated to hurt and injure my reputation and good name,” Gibson wrote in a Facebook post on Dec. 15, 2017, two days after the Standard-Examiner first reported news of the investigation.
He and his backers have since echoed that on numerous occasions, most recently in a May 7 Utah Supreme Court filing in the legal case centered on his bid to block public release of the investigation. “Gibson believed from the outset that the false allegations were politically motivated,” the filing reads.
Gibson, now one of four Republicans running for the 1st District U.S. House seat, has never publicly specified the political forces he believes to be working against him. And those familiar with the series of events that led to the Ogden Police Department investigation are now saying his version of things, his contention that political differences are at the root of things, doesn’t mesh with their accounting. In fact, say former Weber County Commissioners James Ebert and Matt Bell along with Kevin McLeod, a retired Weber County administrator, the reality is perhaps less dramatic. Discontent among county roads and public works employees and their allegations of suspected misdeeds or ethical lapses under Gibson’s leadership as county commissioner led to the investigation, they say.
“There’s nothing about this investigation that was politically motivated,” said McLeod, who was assistant director of the Weber County Community and Economic Development Department when many of the charges came to light in 2017. The root of everything, he contends, was discomfort among workers seeing things or having to do things that, correctly or not, they thought crossed an ethical line.
To be sure, the probe never led to formal charges against Gibson. The Davis County Attorney’s Office reviewed the Ogden Police Department investigation into Gibson, ultimately announcing on May 17, 2018, that it would not file charges, thus dropping the matter. The attorney’s office, it said at the time, had screened charges that Gibson had tapped county equipment and county employees to do work on his family’s dairy farm and allegations that he had directed a county worker to do campaign fundraising work for him during county business hours.
But Gibson’s status as a top county official notwithstanding, there has never been a more full accounting of what spurred the probe, no way to know for sure what forces gave rise to the bitter controversy. Meantime, release of the investigation, sought by the Standard-Examiner and freelance journalist Cathy McKitrick, remains the focus of a court fight in the Utah Supreme Court and Ogden’s 2nd District Court.
Ebert, a commissioner alongside Gibson from 2015 through mid-2018, spoke out, in part perplexed by Gibson’s repeated contentions that politics are at the root of the matter. Both are Republicans, though they sparred at times as commissioners on certain issues, notably plans to upgrade the West 12th Street corridor in western Weber County. “I guess the question I’m trying to understand, who his political foes are,” Ebert said.
In his recounting, Ebert said it all started in 2016 when county roads workers began voicing concerns to him about some of their work duties. Oversight of country roads and public works operations was the responsibility of Gibson, but Ebert didn’t want to just dismiss their charges, sweep their complaints under the rug. At the same time, as a fellow commissioner, he felt it wasn’t his place to be dealing with their issues. Accordingly, he directed the workers — who stepped forward individually, some worried about losing their jobs — to Weber County human resources and county attorney’s office representatives.
“What’s my proper role? My proper role is sending each of the complaints where they need to go,” Ebert said. “We would send them to the correct office or department, then that office or department would take those concerns and act on them.”
He scoffs at the notion that there may have been some sort of orchestrated campaign against Gibson. “It’s ridiculous. It’s completely silly,” Ebert said.
Bell, a county commissioner from 2013 through 2016 and also a Republican, remembers roads and public works employees approaching him, as they did with Ebert. The allegations ranged from ethical to criminal lapses and, not feeling it was his place to resolve such things, he remembers directing them to human resources officials.
“There was no politics on our end, absolutely none,” Bell said. “I’m saying 100%, it’s not political.”
‘MORE FAKE NEWS’
Gibson, asked for his reaction to the three officials’ comments, focused instead on the Davis County Attorney’s Office decision not to file charges. Though asked, he didn’t elaborate on his contention that political foes were behind the matter. “More fake news. There is nothing new here. Again, the fact of the matter is that absolutely no wrongdoing was found,” Gibson said in an emailed statement to the Standard-Examiner.
He’s had plenty of backers all along the way, defending his character and integrity.
After the Davis County Attorney’s Office finished its review of the matter, opting not to file charges, Gibson took over as deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, receiving strong words of support from Mike Styler, then the DNR executive director. Less than a year later, Gov. Gary Herbert tapped him to take over as commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, a post he held until stepping down to make his U.S. House bid.
At the same time, he has a strong base of support in his U.S. House bid. At the Utah Republican Party convention last April, he won out among 12 GOPers in all vying for the 1st District seat, garnering 57% support among party delegates in earning a place on the ballot. Gibson, Blake Moore, Katie Witt and Bob Stevenson face off in the June 30 Republican primary, while Darren Parry and Jamie Cheek face off on the Democratic side.
Whatever the case, McLeod still recalls the leery county workers approaching him back in 2016 and 2017. After the discontent among the roads and public works employees started to bubble over, he and the head of his department decided to meet with the workers one by one to get at the issues, when the allegations directed at Gibson really came out.
Echoing Bell and Ebert, McLeod said their complaints and charges were forwarded to county attorney’s office officials for review.
“There’s nothing about this investigation that was politically motivated,” McLeod said. At its core, he said, it was about workers uncomfortable with what they were seeing and speaking out.