New lawsuit describes now-Rep. John Curtis, other Provo officials as ignoring complaints of police chief’s sexual misconduct

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Former Provo police chief John King participates in a discussion about hate crimes in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.

Less than a year after John King took over as Provo’s police chief in late 2013, then-Mayor John Curtis called a meeting.

He told police department supervisors there had been complaints about King, including that he had sexually harassed a dispatcher, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

With King by his side, the mayor allegedly told the supervisors he did not want to receive any more complaints about the police chief — as long as he was the mayor, King would remain the city’s top cop.

The five women who filed the lawsuit against King and the city say they were the subject of unwanted sexual advances during the chief’s three-year tenure in Provo. They argue the mayor knew about at least some of the allegations and yet his message to the supervisors was clear: King actions would go unchecked and any complaints against him would be ignored.

The women allege that Curtis and other officials did not properly respond to the harassment and assault allegations — ignoring complaints until a police volunteer reported in 2017 that King sexually assaulted her on several occasions. That woman’s report led to King’s forced resignation under threat of termination.

The lawsuit also alleges for the first time that Curtis, now a member of the U.S. House, enabled the chief’s behavior. City officials have previously said they have "been unable to independently verify” that Curtis or human resources had knowledge of the allegations.

But a Provo city councilman told The Salt Lake Tribune this week he became aware of the allegations in late 2015, and brought it to the attention of either Curtis or human resources.

Curtis in a Tuesday statement called the allegations against King “appalling” and “despicable,” and said he fully supports “the brave women who have come forward.” His condemnation of King’s reported actions were significantly more critical of the former chief than his previous remarks on the situation.

“Despite what’s being inaccurately reported, I would never shield or protect a predator or abuser,” Curtis said Tuesday. “I have a history of doing the exact opposite and I’m confident as the legal process unfolds, the details will show I acted responsibly given the information I had at the time.

“Like most situations, in hindsight, perhaps there could have been things done better,” he added. “At the time, with all the facts that I had, I believe I did the best I could and followed the protocols established by the city of Provo acting on the advice of the city attorney and human resources.”

John Curtis, Republican candidate for 3rd Congressional District, celebrates his win at Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Provo, Utah. The Republican mayor of the Mormon stronghold of Provo has won a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

The city has retained a lawyer to look into the lawsuit, it said in a news release Tuesday night, and its new mayor, Michelle Kaufusi, has made it “a top priority for her to ensure that every employee here has a safe and comfortable work environment.”

The city “does not and will not condone sexual harassment, nor does it condone intimidation or retaliation against employees for reporting misconduct or pursuing rights under the law,” the news release says.

King, who has not spoken publicly since the allegations were made last year, did not respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment.

Several of the women — from the dispatcher who filed the first complaint in 2014 to the volunteer whose complaint led to King’s ouster — say they hope their lawsuit brings about a change in Provo and prevents a similar situation from recurring.

“I strongly believe that if the city of Provo believed the women who reported, then my rape, my experience, would have been prevented,” said the volunteer. “And if we can stop that from happening again, then I will have done my experience justice.”

The dispatcher: ‘He was the reason I left’

When King started working in Provo in early 2014, the now-31-year-old woman noticed how the police chief stood over female dispatchers, touched their shoulders, looked down their shirts.

King, at one point, told her he had a dream about her, she said, which made her uncomfortable. (She later learned he made similar comments to a female co-worker in the Baltimore Police Department who reported to police in 2012 that King sexually assaulted her.)

He also leered at her chest during a law enforcement run, she said. Weeks later, King brought his son to the dispatch center and told her to show them pictures of her in her workout attire from the fundraiser run.

By July 2014, the woman decided to leave her job as a dispatcher — a job she loved.

“He was the reason I left,” she said in a recent interview.

During her exit interview, the woman told a police lieutenant that she wanted to file a formal complaint.

“He basically told me I could not file a complaint just based on an icky feeling,” she said. “I told him it wasn’t just an icky feeling and made the complaint.”

But her report led to little action. The woman said she was told Curtis had given King a “heads-up,” and the mayor later told police supervisors that he did not want to hear any other sexual harassment complaints about King.

“I was pretty furious about it,” the former dispatcher said. “When I did file, the mayor addressed it by giving the predator a heads-up.”

The Utah County woman says the city had a chance to stop further misconduct and made the wrong choice.

“I often think that if Provo City had taken it seriously, the other attacks on the other women could have been prevented,” she said. “They protected John King.”

City council was briefed on allegations

Provo Councilman George Stewart said a constituent told him in late 2015 that King had harassed a dispatcher. The report came in just before Stewart took office, and he said he told either Curtis or the city’s top human resources official about the allegation.

Weeks later, Stewart said city officials told him the harassment report had been investigated and “taken care of.” Stewart, who previously served as Provo mayor, said he took that to mean King had been “adequately reprimanded.”

In late 2015 or early 2016, council members held “at least one closed-door meeting” about misconduct allegations made against King, according to the lawsuit. Councilman Gary Winterton confirmed Tuesday the council had such a discussion about King — with the chief present — but he said he could not say much about the meeting because it was a closed session.

“It was handled by [the Curtis] administration,” Winterton said. “They told us everything that was going on, and we had the opportunity to talk with Chief King. And the council felt that the administration were handling things appropriately at that time.”

Winterton said he could not say what type of administrative action, if any, was taken. The lawsuit states the meeting did not result in any discipline of King.

When new allegations of sexual assault emerged against King a year ago, Stewart said he “wasn’t as surprised as I might have been, because of what I had been told previously.”

Stewart said the city of Provo has a legal and moral responsibility to “take care of the victims” in this case, adding he has no reason not to believe their stories. He would not say what actions the city should take.

The volunteer: ‘Who do you go to when you’re fighting the guy who owns the city?’

Months before she made a call to the mayor and told him she was sexually assaulted by the police chief, the 24-year-old Utah Valley University student began volunteering with the police because she was interested in research regarding body-worn cameras, use of force and officer wellness.

She started working with King, but she says it wasn’t long before he became sexually aggressive. He made suggestive comments, pulled at her clothing and forced himself on her.

The woman said in a recent interview that she waited until King had left town for a vacation in January 2017 before she felt safe to report to someone what had happened.

“I was really trying to figure out who I could even report to,” she said. “Who do you go to when you’re fighting against the guy who owns the city?”

Her first call was to Curtis, who she said pointed her in the right direction. Unified Police department ultimately conducted an investigation to avoid a conflict of interest, and King admitted to investigators there he had sex with the woman on several occasions. She said the sexual contact was never consensual.

Salt Lake County prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, even after screening the case a second time after learning about previous sexual assault allegations against King in Maryland. (Prosecutors in Baltimore County also declined to file charges against King.)

“I felt pretty defeated,” the woman said. “It felt kind of like a dead end, but it was also kind of an indication that I needed to try harder or do something different.”

She felt that King was a predator whom no one had been able to stop before.

Before he came to Provo, when he was working on the East Coast, he twice abruptly exited high-profile law enforcement positions with little public explanation.

He nearly did the same in Utah, initially announcing last March he was leaving Provo to care for his ailing mother. But as news of the sexual assault allegation began to surface, Curtis held a news conference revealing he had requested the chief’s resignation.

Curtis said he told King about the volunteer’s report, and said he should stay out-of-state until the investigation resolved. Curtis ultimately asked for the chief’s resignation.

“I do view him as a deep friend,” Curtis said when asked whether he would have fired King if he had not resigned. “That’s a difficult position to be put in, and thank goodness he didn’t put me in that position.”

Hoping for change

The volunteer and the dispatcher are two of the five women who filed the lawsuit against Provo, claiming officials were “deliberately indifferent” to complaints from several women alleging that King leered at them, groped them and made inappropriate comments.

The remaining three women — a police department employee, a dispatch supervisor and a police officer — are still employed at the city and did not feel comfortable speaking with The Salt Lake Tribune, according to their attorney. The Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in 4th District Court, details their experiences. The police department employee says King groped her breast and pulled her close to him several times during a March 2015 encounter when she tried to help him with a copy machine issue, and the police officer similarly says King groped her breast on several occasions when he pressed his fingers underneath her bullet-proof vest while hugging her from the side. The dispatch supervisor says King often touched her without her consent, and rubbed her leg on one occasion during a car ride after he insisted they go to lunch together.

The police department employee reported to Provo officials her experience after King resigned last year, but the lawsuit alleges the city did nothing in response.

Attorney Michael Young, who represents the five women, said in a Tuesday statement that Provo officials failed in hiring King, and failed to protect and believe the women who reported claims of harassment or abuse.

“In order to move forward, Provo City needs to start by believing these women,” he said. “Provo City needs to believe that stewardship and accountability require more than simply blaming a previous administration and leaving this issue to the lawyers.”

The women request monetary damages for emotional distress, as well as a number of policy changes at Provo’s municipal government. Those changes include harassment and discrimination training for police employees and employees in the mayor’s office, implementation of mandatory guidelines for confidential investigation and resolution of harassment complaints, approved guidelines for the “full and complete vetting” of police supervisors and a third-party hotline where people can report sexual assault or harassment.