SALT LAKE CITY — A whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month accuses Morgan County officials of government mismanagement and retaliating against two former county employees after reporting an alleged incident with a county councilman to state auditors.
The lawsuit also highlights the history of contention between Morgan County and the Utah State Auditor’s Office.
Filed on May 9, the county’s former emergency services director and fire director, Ian Nelson, is accusing one current and two former members of the county’s council of “harassment and retaliation” after speaking with the county’s human resources director and members of the state auditor’s office.
In the lawsuit, Nelson claimed that while he worked for the county in the spring of 2016, Morgan County Councilman Robert Kilmer asked Nelson to fill up a well on private property using a fire truck owned by the county. Nelson claims in the lawsuit that he was told the well needed to be filled because “citizens were running out of water,” and he proceeded to fill the well with water.
In the winter of 2017 and 2018, Morgan County was audited by the state auditor’s office. During the course of the audit, Nelson reportedly found out that the well he had filled with water in 2016 was allegedly owned by Kilmer, and the well was used for a campground that Kilmer personally owned, according to the lawsuit.
After reporting the mismanagement to the state, Nelson says he began to be harassed by members of the council, who allegedly threatened to take away his job.
In February 2018, Nelson filed a complaint with the county’s human resources director, Tauna MacPherson. However, the suit claims that MacPherson was terminated from the county shortly after Nelson filed his complaint.
Nelson detailed the alleged abuse in his complaint to human resources. He made detailed complaints about Kilmer and two former members of the county’s council: Austin Turner and Ned Mecham.
“Kilmer was attempting to terminate his employment by any means possible. He was looking through his office after hours, which is a secure building that he was not supposed to be in,” the lawsuit alleges.
Nelson went on to allege that Turner was also attempting to get him removed from his position, and had even told other county employees about doing so.
Mecham allegedly made calls to Nelson’s other employers, “demanding to know details about Plaintiff’s position and work as well as other personal information,” the suit says. Nelson claims that once he heard of the calls, he called the number back only to find out it was Mecham on the other line.
Nelson would later be terminated from his position with the county on Nov. 21, 2018.
Nelson also later claimed that the issues caused “undue stress and strife” in his family, adding that his wife was recovering from a brain tumor at the time and he has a special need son who was diagnosed with Tuberous Sclerosis, a condition that causes tumors or growths to form in the brain, skin or other organs.
The lawsuit claims that the county’s actions violate the Utah Whistleblower Act and have inflicted emotion distress to Nelson and his family.
No specific dollar amount in damages was requested in the federal complaint, and instead asked for the amount to be determined by a jury.
A search of audits involving Morgan County did not specifically include the issues Nelson eluded to in the lawsuit.
Efforts to contact the attorney for Morgan County and the three men, Kristin VanOman, were unsuccessful.
Calls and emails to Nelson’s attorney, Jason Haymore, went unreturned as of Thursday afternoon.
Mentioned in the lawsuit is Morgan County’s “history of disagreements” with the state auditor’s office.
The county has been audited in different capacities in recent years, but documents show points of contention between the two.
In 2017, Utah State Auditor John Dougall sent the Morgan County Council a letter regarding a possible Open and Public Meetings Act violation. Dougall indicated that during a July 18, 2017 meeting, members of the council voted to remove Tina Cannon from her position as council chair, a motion which appeared to be approved. Dougall wrote that the vote was not on the council’s agenda, and could not find any reference to the motion to notify the public regarding the vote.
Dougall referred the possible violation to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which is tasked with enforcing the open meetings law.
In the letter, Dougall noted the council’s, “failure to address a significant control deficiency identified by its independent auditor. This defiance has been brought to the attention of the council for multiple years, but has not been resolved.”
The lethargic response to the suggested corrective actions could increase the risk of fraud or noncompliance, Dougall wrote in the letter.
Dougall’s letter was sent to Tina Cannon — who still serves on the Morgan County Council, but not as council chair — Mecham, Morgan County Attorney Jann Farris and Stacy Netz Clark, Morgan County Clerk.
In response to the letter, Farris wrote in a letter dated July 31, 2017 that some members of the council believed the motion to remove Cannon was a “purely administrative action that did not merit public notice.” He added that the new council chair added a line to their next meeting for a vote to ratify their decision, a move he said would qualify as an acceptable cure to the issue.
Farris went on to claim that Dougall’s letter was an “over-reach” of Dougall’s authority.
Farris believed that it was premature of Dougall to audit the county over the possible violation and without contacting members of the council to verify any possible wrongdoing.
“The threat of an audit by your office smacks of political activism and is not related to the Open Meetings Act in any way,” Farris wrote. “It seems unprofessional and unethical to me.”
Farris went on to accuse Dougall of having a conflict of interest with Cannon, claiming the two were close personal friends and that she had worked on Dougall’s campaigns. Farris also requested that Dougall recuse himself from any future audits involving Morgan County.
In a response, Dougall reiterated his concerns with the county’s internal controls, and the “tone at the top” within the county’s government.
“Your letter of July 31, 2017 simply reinforces that concern,” Dougall wrote.
One recent audit, which analyzed the county’s internal controls between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2017, suggested that the county beef up their disclosures over possible conflicts of interest, as well as ensure separations of financial duties.
The same audit suggested that the council members have their expenditures approved by the county attorney, a policy they did not have in place, and claimed the county had insufficient documentation for reimbursement for mileage while on the job.
While the council replied that they either accepted or agreed with the auditor’s findings, only four council members actually signed the response — Mecham, Kilmer, Turner and Roland Haslam, the current chair of the council. Two others — John Barber and Daryl Ballantyne — did not respond to the letter, while Cannon would not sign the letter.