Provo to pay $750K to five women who say they were sexually harassed by former police chief

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 August 4, 2016.

Provo City has agreed to pay a total of $750,000 to five women who filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging sexual misconduct by John King, the former police chief.

The federal court settlement comes four months after the women alleged in a lawsuit that city officials did not respond to allegations of harassment and assault — 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.

Lawyers for both the city and the plaintiffs said in a joint news release Thursday that they have settled the case and will now ask a judge to dismiss it.

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi issued a statement calling the case “difficult.”

“While the city felt that it dealt appropriately with the complaints at the time they were filed, the city also recognized that we would spend a substantial amount of money in mounting a defense,” she said. “We also wanted to bring the issue to conclusion to allow healing among our police department employees and be able to move forward from these incidents.”

The five women say they were the subjects of unwanted sexual advances during the chief’s three-year tenure in Provo. They also say city officials including then-Mayor John Curtis — now a member of Congress — enabled the chief’s behavior and ignored complaints about him.

The women’s attorney, Michael Young, said in the Thursday news release that it was “unfortunate” that his clients felt it was necessary to file a lawsuit to resolve their complaints.

“That said, these women are eager to put the lawsuit behind them and concentrate on moving forward,” Young said.

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

In their lawsuit, the women sought an unspecified amount of money in damages as well as changes in city policy, including implementation of harassment and discrimination trainings for police and mayor’s office employees. The Thursday news release does not mention any changes to policy, only the monetary amount which will be paid by the city’s insurance carrier.

Heather White, the city’s attorney, had pushed back on the allegations against Provo in April, saying they were “inconsistent with what actually occurred.” The city, she said, responded “swiftly and appropriately” to three misconduct allegations they received about King during his tenure.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The city of Provo's attorney, Heather White, of Snow, Christensen and Martineau, is filing a response to the lawsuit that was recently filed against the city by several women alleging sexual harassment and assault by former Police Chief John King; the lawsuit also alleged that former mayor John Curtis and city officials ignored complaints about King. White addressed the media during a news conference at Snow Christensen & Martineau in Salt Lake City Thursday April 19, 2018.

The first allegation came from a police dispatcher, White said, who told her supervisor in July 2014 that King made her uncomfortable by staring at her chest. The city’s human resources department launched an investigation, and King denied the allegations. She said Curtis then told King to stop the reported inappropriate behavior.

A second report came from a September 2015 survey of city employees. One employee reported that King “has boundary issues with touching female employees,” according to White. A subsequent survey of police dispatchers came back with a similar complaint about King touching a dispatcher inappropriately.

Curtis spoke with King about the complaint, the former mayor has said, and instructed the police chief to retake the city’s online sexual harassment training.

The third report of misconduct was from the department volunteer who came forward in February 2017 to say King had sexually assaulted her. Though prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, Curtis asked for King’s resignation under threat of termination.

The remaining complaints in the lawsuit, White said, were not brought to the city’s attention until after King had resigned.

The former chief moved back to Maryland — where he had lived before coming to Provo — and gave up his police certification in Utah after his resignation.

King’s attorney, Loren Weiss, did not file a formal answer to the allegations in court before the settlement agreement, and was not immediately available for comment Thursday. He told The Tribune in April that King “unequivocally denies” the allegations.

Before King came to Provo in 2013, he twice abruptly exited high-profile law enforcement positions in Maryland 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.

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

The women’s lawsuit also claims the city did not do its due diligence in hiring King. His sudden departures from previous jobs were covered in newspapers and stories 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 has said he never looked up King’s name online, and never heard of concerns from employees who may have.

The Tribune last year reported that King was forced out of the Baltimore Police Department in 2012 due to a report that he had sexually assaulted a co-worker. Prosecutors in Maryland declined to file charges in that case.

Baltimore police in October 2014 agreed to pay the woman $24,000 after she told the department she intended to sue.

A month later, King was named Provo’s police chief.