Feds sue Utah criminal justice officials, alleging multimillion dollar grant fraud

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Ron Gordon is general counsel to Gov. Gary Herbert. He's named in a federal lawsuit accusing state leaders of grant fraud. At that time, he was the executive director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Federal authorities are suing some of Utah’s top public safety officials, alleging they committed fraud by misusing millions of dollars in grants that were part of stimulus programs during the Great Recession.

It’s a case that has its roots in an investigation launched by a Utah inmate.

Reginald Williams first filed a whistleblower complaint in 2015, alleging in court papers that he uncovered the fraud while working in the prison’s print shop in 2012. Williams said he noticed documents indicating that federal funds were being used to pay the salaries of guards with the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC).

“Becoming suspicious UDC officials were misusing federal funds, [Williams] spent several thousand hours reviewing documents, questioning UDC administrative staff and prisoners and observing prison guards paid with [federal] funds,” his lawsuit reads, “Williams determined UDC officials obtained federal funds under false pretenses.”

Williams’ complaint became public in February after federal officials agreed to take over the case.

And on Friday, the U.S. attorney for Utah filed the lawsuit, which goes far beyond the walls of the prison. It alleges that the state’s criminal justice leaders applied for federal grants intended to be used to hire new employees during a recession and kept the money in their budgets instead.

Replacing state budgeted money with federal funds, called supplanting, is prohibited in the grant program and is one of the “central restrictions,” federal attorneys wrote in the court filing. They allege that Utah officials defrauded the federal government out of more than $17 million using four grant programs.

“Instead of properly using the grant money they received, defendants misused it by replacing rather than supplementing state money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Ferre wrote. “In particular, defendants used federal money to pay salaries of existing state employees and then did not, when required, immediately fill the vacated positions.”

Federal attorneys allege that the grant fraud included officials within the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), the Administrative Office of Courts, the Utah attorney general’s office, the Department of Public Safety, Juvenile Justice Services and the Department of Corrections.

The lawsuit names 18 state officials who the feds say signed documents from 2009 to 2013 affirming that the grant money would not supplant their budgets, including former CCJJ Director Ron Gordon — who now works as general counsel for Gov. Gary Herbert — and Mike Haddon, who is currently the director of Utah’s prison system.

The legal action comes as the federal government is again doling out funding to help people during a recession, this time caused by the spreading coronavirus and the shutdown of businesses deemed nonessential. Back in 2008, the federal grants that Utah officials applied for were intended to help state entities keep law enforcement on the job and create new positions after the recession affected state budgets.

But federal attorneys say Utah officials took the grant money, moved existing employees to new positions but never hired anyone to fill the old jobs. Utah is far from the only state to face such accusations. Federal authorities noted in the lawsuit that, in 2009, it barred 25 state and local agencies from receiving grants for violating “non-supplanting requirements.”

The feds would have done the same thing to Utah back then, attorneys wrote, if they had known what was happening.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement back in February that his office has been cooperating with federal officials and noted that the alleged fraud happened before he was elected attorney general. Reyes said his office plans to “vigorously defend” state officials in court.

“Although this alleged conduct took place before I or my team was in office, we know these defendants,” he said. “They are upstanding public servants of Utah. Mistakes may have been made in the grant process, but the notion that these individuals and their agencies were all involved in some massive predatory and prolonged conspiracy to defraud the federal government is not only far fetched, but simply wrong.”

The governor’s office declined to comment Monday, saying it does not speak publicly about pending litigation.

Williams initially filed what is called a qui tam lawsuit, in which whistleblowers assist in pursuing individuals who commit fraud against the government. If the case succeeds, he would be entitled to collect a portion of any of the damages or fines paid by the defendants. These types of lawsuits are typically sealed at first to give the government time to investigate the allegations and weigh whether to pursue the case — which the federal government did in Williams’ lawsuit a few months ago.

But Williams, who has been in prison since the 1980s for sexual assault, asked for more than that in his filing.

He says he was fired from his job at the print shop for revealing the alleged fraud, and he’s asking for a judge to order the state to pay him lost wages from his old job, where he made $2,500 a year, and to reinstate him to that job or another job that pays the same.