OGDEN — The police investigation into Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson stemmed, at least in part, from concerns that county employees had carried out work on property owned by his family’s business, according to a former county official.
Until now, the genesis of the probe was unknown. A 41-year public servant recently spoke with the Standard-Examiner and provided direct insight into how events unfolded, from the perspective of someone involved.
Kevin McLeod, former assistant director of the Weber County Community and Economic Development Department, said he spoke with two county employees who reported being asked to do work on Gibson’s property during a flood-mitigation project, completed in 2015.
The workers, along with other employees under the department’s purview, were all interviewed last September by McLeod and Sean Wilkinson, the department director. The pair was trying to get a handle on rumblings of morale problems among roads and public works employees.
McLeod, who retired in December, said he wants to refute any notion that the Gibson investigation is politically-motivated.
Gibson and his backers maintain the whole event is an attempt to mar his reputation. Gibson said through his attorney his suspected the flood project was the focus of the investigation but rejects any suggestion of wrongdoing.
Police and officials from the Weber and Davis county attorneys’ offices have said little about the matter as the investigation continues.
EMPLOYEE MORALE INTERVIEWS
One of the employees interviewed said he was instructed to clear debris or foliage from the rural Gibson property, adjacent to the Weber River, “so Gibson could farm more ground,” said McLeod. “The concern was it was done outside the river project.”
Another employee offered a similar story, McLeod said. Both recalled pressure to do the work and that the directive came from Gibson himself.
“They didn’t like it at all... Neither one of them felt it was part of the river project,” McLeod said.
McLeod said he doesn’t remember the identities of the two employees, explaining his and Wilkinson’s efforts were focused on sussing out a cause of the morale problems in the department. He said he ultimately forwarded the information to the Weber County Attorney’s Office soon after the one-on-one meetings with the workers wound down.
Wilkinson was less definitive than McLeod about the allegations put forward by the employees, but confirmed that some information insinuating possible misconduct was passed forward for investigation.
The public works employees, when interviewed, “said some things we were concerned about,” Wilkinson said. The Weber County Attorney’s Office seemed the appropriate venue to parse them.
“We heard rumors. They said they saw things. Nobody gave us concrete information about anything,” Wilkinson said.
As Wilkinson remembers, one employee reported seeing what he or she suspected was county equipment outside the boundaries of the county’s Weber River flood-mitigation project, raising concerns it was used for a non-county purpose.
Ultimately, McLeod said, the information was handed to the Ogden Police Department for investigation. News of the Ogden police probe came to public light in December but it is still unclear exactly when the probe began. The agency’s findings were passed on in late February or early March to the Davis County Attorney’s Office for review. (Ogden Police and the Davis County Attorney’s Office stepped in for the Weber County Sheriff’s Department and Weber County Attorney’s Office to avoid conflicts of interest, which is a typical safeguard to prevent a government entity from investigating itself with bias.)
Weber County Commissioner James Ebert recalls county human resources officials and Wilkinson seeking the interviews with public works employees last year “to really ferret out” seeming morale issues.
The leadership of then-Roads Superintendent Ryan Judkins — and, McLeod says, a Gibson ally — seemed to be a concern, according to Ebert.
All of the Standard-Examiner’s coverage so far of the Kerry Gibson investigation
The interviews, according to Wilkinson, bore that out.
Some expressed resentment over the relatively short time Judkins was in the department — less than three years — before his promotion to superintendent in 2015.
Judkins was subsequently demoted to equipment operator in late December 2017, according to his human resources record. Now Joe Hadley, selected after an open interview process, serves as superintendent, Wilkinson said, and morale seems to have improved.
Ebert is sketchy on the allegations of inappropriate work done on the Gibson property during the $26.4 million Weber River project, which was done to shore the waterway up and guard against a repeat of the 2011 flooding.
Gibson is one of four principals in GGA LLC, a family dairy operation that owns 426 acres in western Weber County, part of it along the eastern bank of the Weber River adjacent to the county project work zone.
He’s said he’s only heard third-hand talk related to the flood project and said county staffers have been instructed to take any concerns of a legal nature directly to the county attorney’s office.
“They don’t need to come through the commissioner’s office,” Ebert said.
Similarly, he was circumspect in discussing why Gibson was stripped in November of his responsibility over the county community and economic development operations, which encompasses public works functions. Ebert and fellow County Commissioner Jim Harvey made that move soon after the questions about the flood-mitigation project emerged.
Harvey is now in charge of community and economic development, while Gibson took over Harvey’s responsibilities as liaison to the Weber County Sheriff’s Office and the Weber County Attorney’s Office.
“We consulted with legal and legal’s recommendation was to move the portfolio,” Ebert said.
Harvey, asked about McLeod’s allegations, recalls McLeod approaching him, wanting to convey some information.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to hear it,’” Harvey said, directing him instead to human resources and county attorney’s officials.
‘WILL BE FULLY EXONERATED’
Gibson has said he suspects something with the handling of the river project is behind the Ogden Police investigation. But all along, he and his backers — including Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Michael Styler — have rejected any suggestion of wrongdoing.
“I’m fully confident Commissioner Gibson will be fully exonerated,” said Peter Stirba, Gibson’s lawyer, who’s based in Salt Lake City. It’s up to the Davis County Attorney’s Office, reviewing the Gibson investigation, to decide if charges or other action is merited, and officials in the office are continuing their efforts.
Last Februrary, Stirba supplied the Standard-Examiner with copies of declarations by Weber County Engineer Jared Anderson and Weber County Emergency Management Director Lance Peterson. Both helped oversee the flood-mitigation project and both attested to the integrity of its completion.
“Myself and all of the other engineers and contractors who worked on the project were aware that portions of the river ran directly adjacent to a farming and dairy operation owned by the Gibson family,” Andersen said in his statement. “I know for a fact that there was no favorable treatment given to that portion of the river to bestow some benefit on the Gibson family different than any other property owner that had the river abutting their property.”
Gibson voiced reservations about his involvement in the project in light of the proximity of his land to the work zone “more than once,” Peterson said. But he knows “of no decision that he was involved in concerning any work that was done on the section of river that went through the Gibson property.”
Stirba and others have insisted that political factors are at play by foes bent on harming Gibson’s reputation. Gibson had just announced plans to take a deputy director’s post with the Utah Department of Natural Resources when word of the police inquiry surfaced.
Those plans are now on hold and Gibson, a former Utah state representative finishing his second term as county commissioner, announced last month that he wouldn’t seek reelection to the county post.
Ebert, though, questions charges of dirty politicking, saying political movitvations come in to play more typically when someone is up for election.
Suggestions that politics underlie the issue similarly miffed McLeod. He worked 41 years in public service, including stints as undersheriff in the Davis County and Weber County sheriff’s office, before retiring last year after about five years with the Weber County Community and Economic Development Department.
He gets tired of hearing reports about political corruption and said he put his focus when in government on the public.
“I’ve always believed in being transparent. Every citizen is our boss,” said McLeod.