Rep. John Curtis says he ‘never attempted to protect’ a former Provo police chief accused of sexual misconduct, as lawsuit alleges

(Noel St. John | Special to the Tribune) John Curtis stands outside the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., before being sworn into the United States Congress on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

Rep. John Curtis fired back Wednesday at a lawsuit filed a day earlier that accuses him of ignoring sexual harassment complaints made against Provo’s former police chief.

“I want to set the record straight,” the Republican and former Provo mayor wrote in a lengthy statement his office sent to several news outlets Wednesday.

“I have not and would never knowingly do anything to shield any individual who acted inappropriately with respect to sexual harassment,” Curtis said, adding news reports covering the lawsuit had “misrepresented” his involvement in the allegations and were “not accurately reported.”

The lawsuit, brought by five women, alleges Curtis ignored “numerous” sexual harassment complaints raised against former Provo Police Chief John King, who was hired in late 2013 and ultimately forced out in 2017 after allegations emerged he had sexually assaulted a department volunteer.

The lawsuit says Curtis called a meeting with police supervisors in 2014 and told them he did not want to hear any more harassment complaints about King — and that King would stick around as long as Curtis was mayor.

Reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune also confirmed the Provo City Council held a closed-door meeting related to King’s alleged misconduct in late 2015 or early 2016.

But in the Wednesday statement, Curtis said he received only two complaints about King.

“The first incident was when a police dispatcher informed the city that she felt uncomfortable with the way the former chief looked at her,” Curtis wrote. “I never once questioned the validity of this allegation, and worked with both the human resource and legal departments of Provo City to resolve the complaint.

“I insisted that the matter be promptly resolved by Provo City’s human resources team,” he added. “I personally worked with the chief to set boundaries in dispatch to make a better work environment for the employee.”

The second incident Curtis heard about was the report of sexual assault that ultimately led him to ask King to resign, in March 2017. “I received a phone call in my car from a woman who explained that she had been raped by the Provo City police chief,” Curtis wrote.

He said he never questioned the “validity of her story, and I took her allegation extremely seriously.” Curtis wrote that within minutes he contacted other city officials and Utah County authorities about her report. The woman is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in 4th District Court Tuesday.

“I never attempted to protect or shield John King or the horrendous actions,” Curtis wrote.

Utah’s newest congressman also addressed King’s hiring. The lawsuit alleges the city did not do its due diligence in vetting King, who had abruptly departed two previous jobs under unclear circumstances. Both departures were written about in newspapers and easily found on the internet, and the lawsuit alleges more than one police employee raised concerns about his background after he was hired.

The Tribune last year reported King was forced out of the Baltimore Police Department due to a report he had sexually assaulted a co-worker.

But Curtis wrote that the city, via an outside recruiting firm, had conducted a “thorough screening process” that included a background check, a psychiatric evaluation and a polygraph test. He said the city’s seven-member hiring committee described King as an “outstanding” candidate. Curtis said he himself called several people who knew King.

“Through all this, I was never made aware of any information that would have led me to suspect that he was a serial sexual offender,” Curtis said, adding, “Somehow, we missed those warning signs.”

Curtis asked his constituents “to not judge me solely on a mischaracterization of my involvement in this heartbreaking situation.”

Curtis has now issued two statements on the lawsuit and media reports covering it. Both were significantly more critical of the former chief than any of his former comments on the subject. In a news conference announcing the reason for King’s departure last year, Curtis said the former chief was a “deep friend,” and while King had violated the public’s trust, Curtis was not aware of a “single policy that was broken.”

“You did your best to protect me,” King wrote in an email to Curtis after the 2017 news conference. Curtis also responded to an email from Provo Fire Chief James Miguel after the news conference, saying he “had hoped beyond hope that I could send [King] off with dignity. I’m afraid that didn’t happen.”

Curtis has thus far declined to respond to specific questions from The Tribune about the lawsuit’s allegations.