Utah ethics office rejects complaint against personal attorney for two San Juan County commissioners

An ethics complaint filed against Steven Boos, the personal attorney for San Juan County Commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, has been dismissed after a four-month review process by the Office of Professional Conduct.

The complaint was submitted June 13 by former San Juan County Administrator Kelly Pehrson, who served in the position for eight years before resigning abruptly at the end of April.

Pehrson alleged that Boos, who had successfully sued the county over voting rights violations, had a conflict of interest in giving legal advice to Maryboy and Grayeyes, adding that Boos was “awful” and a “bully.”

Boos represented the Navajo Nation in a landmark voting rights lawsuit that reconfigured the county’s school board and commission districts in 2017 and led to the election last year of Grayeyes and Maryboy.

The commissioners, both Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation, serve on the county’s first majority-Native American County Commission.

After the election, Boos, who has known both Maryboy and Grayeyes for 24 years, began offering free legal advice to them as they transitioned into their new roles. He assisted in drafting resolutions that were passed by the commission, including withdrawing the county from a lawsuit supporting President Donald Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument.

Boos’ role was not well known for several months until public records requests led to the release of a letter in which Boos acknowledged he was advising the commissioners.

Pehrson’s paragraph-long complaint against Boos repeats several criticisms that are commonly made by San Juan County residents: that there is a conflict of interest for commissioners to be represented by an attorney who has sued the county for millions of dollars and who refuses to publicly disclose communications between himself and the commissioners, even when it involves county business.

Boos responded with a nine-page letter to the OPC that addresses each of Pehrson’s allegations point by point.

As to the charge that he is “awful,” the attorney wrote to the ethics office that “that is not a matter covered by the rules.” He added that in his experience it is common for losing parties in litigation to be angry with the legal counsel on the winning side, and in that sense, "I suppose [Pehrson’s] characterization is accurate.”

Boos, a Colorado-based attorney who has an extensive background working on the Navajo Nation, gives a brief history of racial discrimination in the county and describes witnessing “extreme levels of animosity toward Navajos and the attorneys who represent them” throughout the redistricting case.

“[D]uring the course of this litigation, while Mr. Pehrson was the County Administrator and Kendall Laws was the legal overseer of the County, the County was found to have repeatedly engaged in acts of intentional racial discrimination against its Navajo citizens,” Boos wrote.

The letter goes on to recount Boos’ work defending Grayeyes against an unsuccessful challenge to his Utah residency in the summer of 2018.

Boos wrote that Kendall Laws directed “an unlawful investigation into Mr. Grayeyes’s residence” despite “a clear conflict of interest,” given the fact that “Kelly Laws, father to Kendall Laws and uncle to Kelly Pehrson ... was also Willie Grayeyes’ opposing [Republican] candidate in District 2.”

Grayeyes was removed from the ballot by County Clerk John David Nielson, but he was reinstated after a federal court found Nielson had improperly backdated documents in the case.

Kelly Laws filed a separate challenge against Grayeyes in state court in late December, and Boos again represented the commissioner in the case. The court ruled in Grayeyes’ favor in January, several weeks after he was seated on the commission.

It was in this context that Boos began offering legal assistance to the Democratic commissioners. He describes providing “routine counsel and advice on legislative procedures and drafting of resolutions.”

Pehrson had alleged Boos had a conflict of interest because at the time there was a pending appeal to the redistricting lawsuit in which the Navajo Nation had billed the county for $3.1 million in fees and costs under Voting Rights Act provisions.

Boos responded that he was paid for his work on the case by the Navajo Nation and the claim belonged to the tribal government, not to him or his firm, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel. (The county entered mediation with the Navajo Nation in September and agreed to pay $2.6 million in plaintiff fees.)

Since leaving his post in April, Pehrson has served as Utah’s deputy commissioner of Agriculture and Food, and has been highly critical of Grayeyes and Maryboy.

“I’d say the trust between [Kelly Pehrson] and his bosses collectively had deteriorated to a point where it was unsalvageable,” said David Everitt, who was hired as interim county administrator in the wake of Pehrson’s departure. “And that when he left, there were a number of outstanding tasks from the various resolutions that still needed to be completed. Specifically, correspondence to federal elected officials regarding the changes in policy positions of the commission [and] scheduling meetings away from Monticello.”

Pehrson said those tasks were delayed because they were being reviewed by the county attorney’s office, and he was not able to act on them.

Everitt, who had signed on only temporarily, was replaced in October by Mack McDonald.

In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune in September, Pehrson suggested the newspaper’s reporting on the sharp decline of the county’s general fund during his tenure — including a $106,000 overpayment to a Louisiana law firm that Pehrson signed off on in May 2017— was misdirected. The potential need to raise property taxes in the county, Pehrson implied, was caused not by the previous commission’s spending but by the current commission’s opposition to growth.

He asserted that Maryboy and Greyeyes had blocked development in the county’s northern reaches and halted oil leases in the south.

Pehrson was referring to a six-month commercial building moratorium imposed along a portion of the highway corridor in Spanish Valley, which was approved by all three commissioners, including Republican Bruce Adams. A second reference was to a nonbinding opinion resolution that Maryboy and Grayeyes voted for related to oil and gas leasing on archaeologically rich Bureau of Land Management lands in southeast Utah. He was also critical of the higher salary being paid to Everitt.

Pehrson did not respond to a request for comment regarding the ethics complaint other than to say, “It looks to me that their response was just I filed to the wrong place ... they didn’t decide anything.”

The OPC, which is mandated by the Utah Supreme Court to review complaints filed against attorneys practicing in the state, dismissed the case Nov. 1. The office said it had conducted a “thorough review” and declined to prosecute Boos, though it added Pehrson could consult an attorney on the matter.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.