Rep. John Curtis recounts another warning sign about former Provo police chief, says scandal ‘will leave a mark’ on re-election campaign

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Congressman John Curtis, Friday March 23, 2018.

Rep. John Curtis has regrets about the way he handled the abrupt departure of a Provo police chief who is now accused by five Utah women of sexual misconduct.

Then Provo’s mayor, Curtis allowed John King to resign from his position as the city’s top cop last March, after a woman accused the chief of raping her. Now, the Republican congressman said he questions himself.

Should he have fired King instead? Should he have let King initially tell the public he was leaving because of family health issues?

And should he have been harsher in condemning the chief’s actions in a news conference when he later announced that King was leaving town because of a sexual assault allegation?

“I’ll question myself as much as anybody else,” he said Friday in a meeting with the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board.

And on Friday — days after the five women filed a lawsuit saying Curtis and others did not properly respond to harassment allegations involving King — Curtis revealed another instance in which he had been told about a dispatcher complaining of the police chief's behavior.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Provo Police Chief John King holds a news conference at the Provo Police Department calling on state policymakers to accept federal funds to extend health insurance coverage for more Utah residents. The push, also supported by Orem Police Chief Gary Giles, argues that expansion of health coverage could prevent future crime and violence and save the state money.

In a lengthy statement released to the media earlier this week, Curtis said he was made aware of two complaints against King during his three-year tenure: an incident in which a police dispatcher told the city that she felt uncomfortable with the way King looked at her, and the report of sexual assault in 2017 that led to King’s dismissal.

But the former mayor said Friday that, after he released the statement, he was reminded of another incident involving a dispatcher. Curtis said that at some point — he couldn’t remember the date — dispatchers were given a survey asking about their work environment after a former officer’s family member emailed him vague allegations of inappropriate behavior within the dispatch center.

Thirteen workers responded. A dozen said they had no issues, according to Curtis, and one reported that the police chief “makes me uncomfortable.”

In response, Curtis said he spoke with King in the mayor’s office, setting boundaries of where he could go in the dispatch center and asking him to retake a training course on sexual harassment. It was the only disciplinary action against the chief before he was forced out in 2017.

But it was the second time the former mayor had spoken to King about dispatcher complaints, Curtis said Friday.

He also spoke to the chief after a dispatcher reported to the city that King had looked at her inappropriately. (He could not remember when the report came in or whether it was from the same dispatcher who is now suing the city.)

When he asked King about the report, the chief claimed he “didn’t know where she got that from,” and Curtis said he told King that he “couldn’t leave any room for misinterpretation.”

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

Curtis on Friday said the meeting was mischaracterized, that he had called the meeting to discuss a new, unpopular “beat program” that King had implemented in the Police Department. He said there was also concern in the department that King would not stay in Provo long because his wife did not move to Utah with him.

“That was absolutely all,” Curtis said. “Never, under any circumstances, would I infer that they were expected to follow him if anything was not appropriate, let alone sexual harassment.”

Reporting by The Tribune also confirmed that the Provo City Council held a closed-door meeting related to King’s alleged misconduct in late 2015 or early 2016. Curtis would not discuss what was said in that meeting because it was in a closed session.

The lawsuit also says the city did not do its due diligence in hiring King, who had abruptly departed two previous jobs under unclear circumstances. Both departures were covered in newspapers and were easily found on the internet, and the lawsuit alleges more than one police employee raised concerns about King’s background when he was hired. Curtis said he never looked up King’s name online, and that he never heard of concerns from employees who may have.

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

Prosecutors in Maryland and Utah have declined to file charges against King.

Curtis said Friday that he didn’t learn about the previous allegations until after King had left the department. He said the city, via an outside recruiting firm, had conducted a screening process that included a background check, a psychiatric evaluation and a polygraph test. King was the top choice from a seven-member hiring committee, Curtis said, adding that he called several people who knew King.

He estimated that Provo spent “tens of thousands of dollars” contracting with the California hiring firm Citygate Associates — and that nothing questionable came up.

“It’s not a small thing,” he said. “Clearly, that’s why you use a professional firm: You don’t always have the expertise inside. This is what they do for a living.”

The Tribune has reached out to Citygate for comment about King’s hiring multiple times, as recently as last week, but employees there have not responded.

Several of the women who filed the lawsuit, from the dispatcher who filed the first complaint in 2014 to the police 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 occurring.

Curtis said he, too, hopes the city looks at its processes.

“I have to believe that Provo city would like to improve and would be looking for things themselves,” he said. “What were the breakdowns, just in the hiring process alone?”

City officials have said recently that Provo’s new mayor, Michelle Kaufusi, is monitoring an investigation conducted by city officials and has made it “a top priority” to ensure that employees have a safe work environment.

Curtis is up for re-election in November, one year after first taking his U.S. House seat in a special contest to replace Jason Chaffetz. The freshman lawmaker will have a rematch this year against former GOP state Rep. Chris Herrod, who defeated Curtis at convention in 2017 but lost to him in the primary.

The controversy over King, Curtis said Friday, could affect his campaign.

“This will leave a mark,” he said. “This hurts fundraising. This hurts when you want to be chairman of a committee. This hurts 10 years from now, when you want you want to apply for an executive job.”