Editor’s note: this story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune Aug. 29, 2003.
Jay Lee resigned as mayor of the small southwestern Utah town of Virgin on Thursday before pleading to a pair of charges related to the misuse of public funds in a deal reached with prosecutors.
Lee stood erect in a blue suit before 5th District Judge James Shumate, flanked by attorney David Terry, as he pleaded no contest to attempted misuse of public funds and guilty to a second charge of witness tampering. Both are class A misdemeanors punishable by a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Thursday’s hearing came just hours after Lee resigned and Kenneth Cornelius, a member of the Town Council, was appointed as mayor pro tem. The plea came as the latest entry in a tumultuous chronology of Lee’s tenure as mayor, which included efforts to arm the entire town and ban the United Nations.
Lee originally was charged with a second-degree felony misuse of public funds, but Washington County Deputy Attorney Paul Christensen amended the charge as part of a plea bargain.
Christensen told the judge that between Aug. 22, 2001 and June 21, 2002, Lee allowed then-town clerk Stacy Noelle Higbee to collect an advance on her wages totaling $18,600. After a January audit of the town’s financial records, Higbee had paid back all but $2,500. Lee used his own money to pay back the $2,500, which proved he knew the practice of advancing the wages was wrong, Christensen said.
“Lee received no pecuniary gain,” Christensen said. “But he signed the checks. It happened on his watch.”
Higbee, who has resigned as town clerk, has a preliminary hearing scheduled for Sept. 8 before Shumate.
The added charge of witness tampering stemmed from a May incident in which Lee asked the current town clerk, Mona Wilcox, not to testify against him in the apparent belief that the prosecution’s case would crumble without her cooperation.
Lee’s attorney said the defense agreed with the facts of the first charge, but said Lee approached Wilcox on the advice of a third party.
“As misguided as he was, he [talked to Wilcox] not knowing that he was involving himself in felony conduct,” Terry said.
Prosecutors recommended that Lee be sentenced to 2 years in jail, and Shumate said he would ask the state Department of Adult Parole and Probation for a presentence report. He set sentencing for Oct. 1.
Shumate also said because the victims in the case were residents of Virgin, he would ask the Town Council to select town officials who could address the court at Lee’s sentencing.
Lee, who was in the middle of his second term as mayor, has made headlines before.
In June 2001, he convinced the Town Council to pass an ordinance requiring each homeowner in the community of about 400 residents to possess a firearm. The Utah Attorney General’s Office later determined that the ordinance was unconstitutional, so the council changed it to read homeowners just had to be “armed.” One town wag said that could mean anything from a pitchfork to a banana.
That earned Virgin international headlines, to the embarrassment of many residents.
Lee also tried, but failed, to persuade the Town Council to pass an ordinance similar to one in neighboring La Verkin, which adopted a resolution barring the United Nations from conducting any business in town or establishing a presence there.
And last year, Lee was chastised for charging residents $25 to appear before the town’s Planning Commission and council meetings. Lee would screen those wishing to get on the agenda and reject those he feared might express opinions contrary to his.
Two years ago, some residents started the Friends of Virgin, an open-government advocacy group, to protest their difficulties in obtaining access to public documents such as town minutes and financial records.
About 10 of the group’s members were at Lee’s hearing, as was Cornelius, who is not seeking a second term on the Town Council.
Cornelius said the position of mayor will be advertised within a couple of weeks and a candidate will be selected by the council.
“Hopefully this will put two years of unpleasantness behind us and allow us to work together,” he said.
Robert Kelly, a candidate in the Town Council primary election Oct. 7, said the people most affected by Thursday’s action were members of Lee’s family.
“It’s time to get together,” Kelly said. “We’re still all neighbors. We’re not ashamed of Jay. Just because he did something bad does not make him a bad person.”