An investigation into potential electioneering by San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson has been completed by the Weber County Sheriff’s Office and the report is heading back to the San Juan County Attorney for review.
The investigation was initiated in October after poll monitors with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah discovered copies of an opinion piece published in the San Juan Record newspaper supporting Proposition 10 were being distributed at early voting locations on the Navajo Nation in the southern portion of the county.
The letter’s author was Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman, a leading backer of Prop 10, and the ACLU suggested its distribution inside voting locations could violate state election law.
Nielson told The Salt Lake Tribune he had made copies of the letter available in an attempt to educate voters about Prop 10, which would have started the process of considering a change in the form of local government and was the sole item on the ballot for many county voters.
“It was meant to be informative,” Nielson told the newspaper. “The idea that this could be swaying [voters] never crossed my mind.”
The ACLU of Utah saw it in a very different light.
“These reports that county officials and representatives appear to have made these materials available and even facilitated their distribution inside polling places have left us incredulous,” John Mejia, legal director at the ACLU of Utah, said at the time. The ACLU later reported the Clerk’s Office had been cooperative and the letters had been removed from the polls.
According to the Moab Sun News, San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws initiated an investigation soon after the incident occurred and brought in the Weber County Sheriff to avoid any conflicts of interest within the county.
On Monday, Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred said the report was finished.
“My office has discussed the investigation with the [Weber County] Sheriff’s Office and it appears that the investigation is complete,” he said. “We do not intend to formally screen the case for charges. My understanding is that the San Juan County attorney will reach out to another prosecution agency to screen the case and potentially follow through with any prosecution.”
Laws did not respond to The Tribune’s requests for comment for this story.
San Juan County resident William Love filed a complaint against Nielson with the Utah Attorney General’s Office in October, and was told the review process could take more than a month. A copy of his letter to Attorney General Sean Reyes was published in the Moab Sun News. It said, in part, “I am requesting a review of my concerns by your office, prosecution and removal of the San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson, if appropriate.”
A spokesperson for the office on Tuesday told The Tribune he could find no record of an investigation.
Prop 10 would have created a study committee to recommend changes to in the form of government, currently a three-member county commission. The initiative was seen by some as an attempt to undermine the county’s first majority-Native American commission, which was elected last year after several voting rights lawsuits.
The ballot question went down to defeat Nov. 5 by a narrow margin of 1,984 votes to 2,176 after a sustained opposition campaign by Navajo Nation officials and the San Juan County Democratic Party. An analysis of precinct-level data showed the southern parts of the county, which have a greater Native American population, soundly rejected the measure while majority-Anglo precincts supported it.
The Weber County investigation is not the first time Nielson’s actions have been scrutinized by law enforcement. In 2018, Nielson removed Willie Grayeyes, a Democratic commission candidate and member of the Navajo Nation, from the ballot after a Republican opponent claimed Grayeyes was not a Utah resident.
A federal judge ordered Grayeyes be reinstated on the ballot after it was discovered Nielson had improperly backdated a document in order to make the complaint valid.
As in the alleged electioneering case, Laws, whose father was running against Grayeyes in the commission race, referred the matter to an outside prosecutor. Outgoing Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald declined to prosecute Nielson.
Electioneering, the deliberate attempt to influence voters inside or nearby a polling location, is a class A misdemeanor under Utah code and is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
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.