Three Utah County prosecutors resigned recently in the middle of a misconduct investigation involving allegations they received inappropriate gifts from a defense attorney.
Deputy Utah County attorneys Craig Johnson, Chase Hansen and Pona Sitake were accused of going to a Utah Jazz game with defense attorney Dennis Pawelek with tickets that the defense attorney paid for, according to a report obtained recently by The Salt Lake Tribune. The tickets were in the lower bowl, and were estimated to be worth hundreds of dollars.
There was a separate human resources investigation involving Sitake, who was investigated last fall for a sexual harassment complaint alleging he took photos of women in court and shared them in a group message where men debated whether they were attractive.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt confirmed Thursday that the prosecutors resigned in early February as his office was conducting a HR investigation into their attendance at the Dec. 4 Jazz game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He said he also referred the case to the Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office to review whether any laws were broken.
"Enhancing the public's trust in the criminal justice system is one of my main focuses," Leavitt said. "The problem with this case is there is no evidence that there was a quid pro quo. But that's not the point."
Leavitt said in a criminal justice system that heavily relies on plea deals instead of jury trials, it is an inherent conflict of interest for prosecutors to receive anything of value from their courtroom opponents.
"Our system should be based on evidence," he said, "not on relationships."
Leavitt said someone in his office first alerted him to the situation in early January. The three prosecutors were put on leave within a day, and he asked Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office to investigate a day after that.
Gill didn’t know the status of that investigation Monday.
An investigative report created by Utah County’s HR department stated that all three of the prosecutors had hired the same attorney, Richard Gale, to represent them. Gale is Pawelek’s law partner, according to their website.
All three prosecutors denied that Pawelek buying them Jazz tickets had any influence on how they did their work, and said they did not often interact with Pawelek in court.
Jazz ticket invesitigation by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd
When Hansen was asked about his relationship with the defense attorney, he said he’d never received any money from him, but the defense attorney did buy him lunch on a few occasions and invited him to barbecues and a pool party, according to the report. He told HR staff that he went to the Jazz game in December with Pawelek and the other prosecutors, and estimated the tickets cost around $240 each — and added that Pawelek wouldn’t tell him how much he paid even after Hansen asked.
When Leavitt confronted him about the situation, Hansen told HR staffers that he was "shocked" to hear that it might be conceived as improper.
“He had told Leavitt that he had paid Pawelek back — even though he hadn’t,” the reports states. “Hansen said that he subsequently attempted to pay the money back but that Gale, whom he retained as counsel, had advised him not to pay it back because it would ‘look worse’ if he did.”
Sitake told HR personnel that he understood that while the “optics were bad,” he had considered the Jazz game as an outing with friends. Before being hired as a prosecutor, he had worked with Pawelek and Gale to try to create a “sports management” firm, he told HR officials.
"He does not believe that Dennis is trying to gain any favor with the Utah County Attorney Office, he is just very generous," the report says. "He stated that it shouldn’t have happened and that nothing improper ever happened with his cases and there was no influence."
Johnson similarly asserted that Pawelek’s purchases did not influence the way he prosecuted cases. He said he’d been friends with Pawelek for a dozen years, which began when they met at church.
Johnson and Sitake have moved to private practice, according to the Utah State Bar directory, while Hansen is now employed at the Weber County Attorney's Office.
Neither Hansen nor Sitake responded to emails seeking comment.
Pawelek said Monday evening that there was nothing wrong with giving the prosecutors tickets, that they’ve been friends for years and work was never discussed during the game. The other attorneys chipped in — one bought dinner, another paid for parking, maybe a third bought ice cream — and it wasn’t improper.
“There was nothing wrong,” he said. “No laws were broken. There was no attempt to affect the system. It was a night out among friends. Those three people who don’t work [there] anymore, we’re all still friends.”
The defense attorney said many of their social gatherings, like the pool party mentioned in the HR report, were potlucks with their families. He said believed the investigation was a political move by Leavitt, who announced last week that he would be running for attorney general.
“I get good outcomes because I’m a good attorney,” he said. “There’s nothing I would ever do to be unethical towards a prosecutor. Not one person that could make an allegation.”
Johnson said in a Friday statement to The Tribune that his resignation was more about office politics, not misconduct allegations.
The attorney, who worked as a Utah County prosecutor for a dozen years, said Leavitt had recently disbanded a special victims’ unit he was a part of. He also said he was accused of “insubordination” because he would not tell his boss the names of police chiefs and police officers who had contacted him to express concerns about how Leavitt was running the office.
"The specter that the Jazz ticket situation in any way affected my ability to fairly and ethically represent the citizens of Utah County is a false narrative," he wrote. "The defense attorney and I have had a long-standing friendship for almost a decade in my neighborhood. We have coached our kids in t-ball, had family bbqs, and otherwise had a long-term community-based friendship. Suggesting that we ever compromised cases together that short-changed the pursuit of justice could not be further from the truth."
Craig Johnson statement by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd
Sitake had been recently investigated after a co-worker complained in October that he had taken a photo of her during a lunch gathering at a local mall, according to a separate HR report. A Spanish Fork police officer had sent the female employee the photo, describing it as “back-lit by a window and showed her form, but it was otherwise not revealing.”
The officer also showed her other photos of women attending court that had been shared in a text-messaging thread with other attorneys, according to the report, along with comments about whether the women were “hot.” The photos were not suggestive, the report states, but the women did not know they were being photographed.
Another employee, whose name was redacted in the report, told HR personnel that Sitake's group message included photos of women in court with statements such as "beautiful," "looks good for 41" or "could be a model."
Pona Sitake Investigation by The Salt Lake Tribune on Scribd
Sitake initially denied taking photos of the women, according to the report, but eventually admitted to it when confronted with a copy of the text thread.
“Mr. Sitake was apologetic during the interview and seemed contrite,” a follow-up report read. “He admitted disappointment in himself and talked about this circumstance having changed him.”
HR officials recommended Sitake be suspended, adding that while the initial concerns of a hostile work environment were "marginal," his behavior was not professional.
Leavitt said Sitake had been given a three-day suspension without pay, explaining that it wasn’t more serious because Sitake’s actions happened before Leavitt took office and was done in order to be “sensitive” to the female employee involved in the situation.
But before he could begin that three-day suspension, Sitake resigned.