Virgin ex-mayor wins council seat 10 years after criminal case
In 2003, Jay Lee became the disgraced former mayor of Virgin, drummed out of office after pleading guilty to misuse of public funds. Now, 10 years later, Lee has ridden a wave of support back into office as a town councilman.
Lee nabbed 103 votes Nov. 5, earning him a first-place finish in the southern Utah town's council election. Those results also mean Lee was the only candidate to secure a seat on Election Day; the others Jean Krause, Larry Amodt and Linda Collet were left to duke it out over the remaining council seat with only six provisional ballets left to count. Krause eventually won the second seat.
But Lee's story in Virgin begins much, much earlier, when he attracted publicity, controversy and, finally, criminal charges.
Lee first catapulted himself into the spotlight in 2000, when as mayor he championed a town law which eventually passed Â requiring every household in Virgin to have a gun. A year later, Lee was responsible for shepherding a regional anti-United Nations movement in which councils in Virgin and neighboring towns debated "U.N.-free" resolutions.
In 2002, Lee generated controversy yet again when he decided to charge $25 for the privilege to speak at town council meetings.
But by 2003, attention shifted from Lee's unusual policies to his unusual use of public money. In May of that year, prosecutors argued Lee allowed former town clerk Stacy Noelle Higbee to collect $18,600 in unearned pay. Higbee eventually paid back all but $2,500 of the money and Lee covered the rest himself a fact that prosecutors said indicated he knew it was illegal to advance the cash. Higbee pleaded guilty to class A misdemeanor misuse of public money and was sentenced to 18 months probation, which included performing 50 hours of community service.
Prosecutors charged Lee with a second-degree felony for misuse of public funds and a misdemeanor for witness tampering.
The ensuing scandal eventually unraveled Lee's tenure in office.
In August 2003, Lee stepped down as mayor then during a hearing heavily attended by town residents pleaded no contest in 5th District Court to attempted misuse of public funds and guilty to witness tampering. Both charges were class A misdemeanors, the result of a deal Lee reached with prosecutors.
Prosecutors recommended Lee serve two years in jail. Judge James Shumate sentenced him to concurrent terms of one year in jail, but stayed the sentence and ordered him to complete 36 months probation.
Now, 10 years later with Lee fresh off an election victory and again in a town leadership position, the record of his criminal past has all but vanished. A search of Utah court records produced no results and Washington County attorneys were unable to offer any information on the case.
Lee said in a phone conversation that he had his record expunged and declined to discuss details of the case, citing a letter from a district court judge telling him to remain silent.
"We're not discussing it," he said. "It's like it never happened."
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap said that, in general, expungement is a possible reason a criminal record would disappear from court records. Belnap was not speaking specifically about Lee's case.
But not everyone in Virgin is pleased with Lee's return to power. Linda Collet who lost her own bid for a council seat said she attended Lee's court hearings in 2003 and remembers a judge ordering him not to run for office.
"So many people remember that one of the conditions was he never serve in office again," Collet said.
Bonnie Timmerman, another Virgin resident, has a similar memory and expressed concerns with Lee's record. Both women further expressed bafflement that Lee could win re-election and take first place by a wide margin to boot given his controversial and criminal past.
Bill Johnson Collet's life partner and a former councilman who has clashed with Lee called Lee's election "astonishing" given the fact that he was tried and convicted of stealing from the town.
"Something happened that shouldn't have happened," Johnson said, "or there's a lot of people in this town with short memories."
However, Lee brushed aside allegations that he was barred from running for office, saying "felons are the only one swho can't run for office." Lee also said he believes most people in Virgin are aware of his past but have moved on.
Virgin residents aren't unused to controversy in the mayor's office. After Lee's resignation in August 2003, former town Councilman Kenneth Cornelius Jr., was appointed as mayor. Cornelius, however, resigned about a month later, after being charged with misdemeanor counts involving a domestic dispute.
Lee speculated that he took first place in the election because people in the town are tired of stalemate and inactivity on the part of past leaders.
"You know, in the last 10 years basically nothing's happened in town, and I think people are tired of the stalling," Lee said. "They would just like to see something happen."
Now, back in the spotlight, he said he has a vision for the future. Lee said his immediate plans include working to pave dirt roads and build ballparks in Virgin. He also said that he remains interested in the issues he pursued as mayor.
"I see our rights being violated," he said. "The most invasive government there is the local government."