State senator under investigation for allegedly donating money for paint used in district attorney’s office protest

A Utah state senator and four others are being investigated for small donations they made to a protester accused of buying paint spilled outside the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office during anti-police violence demonstrations.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that he did donate to Madalena McNeil’s Venmo account, a platform used for mobile payments. McNeil has been charged with a first-degree felony in connection with the July 9 protest that ended with confrontations with police and damage to the district attorney’s office.

Protesters demanding law enforcement to be charged and fired for shooting and killing 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal have twice poured paint on the street in from of District Attorney Sim Gill’s office. The first time was June 27. The second was July 9, after Gill found the officers’ actions legally justified.

Six others have been charged with the same offense on accusations they transported or spread paint, or broke windows, on July 9. The district attorney’s office said protesters that day caused $50,000 in damage.

Court documents show that Kitchen sent $10 to McNeil on June 28 and used the word “Paint” to describe the donation.

Kitchen, a former Salt Lake City Council member, told the Tribune that he has always supported progressive activism and criminal justice reform.

“In this instance I responded to a solicitation on social media for financial support for what I understood would be a peaceful rally for justice,” he said. “I gave a small contribution to support the cause of justice, but I wasn’t involved in the planning or organization of the event.”

He added that he didn’t attend the protest and said that while he does support peaceful protests, he doesn’t condone violence or vandalism.

Search warrant documents unsealed Wednesday show that police are looking into at least four people for donations made to McNeil. In all, the five donated $95 — about 6% of the $1,644.11 July 9 bill. All described the donations using the word “paint” and were given on June 27 or 28.

Salt Lake City police spokesman Greg Wilking said he didn’t know if additional donations were under investigation.

When asked why police were looking into the small donations, Wilking said detectives were following leads.

“It’s one of those things where people are paying to get this paint that will cause destruction and cost taxpayers money,” Wilking said. “We don’t look at the size of crime, necessarily. It’s what that represents.”

Gill told The Tribune that he didn’t know anything more about the case.

He added that Kitchen is a “close friend and if SLCPD presents anything to us to screen, it will be conflicted out.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, McNeil tweeted a response Wednesday evening, saying: “Good to know that police resources are being spent to investigate the very serious crime of my friend sending me $10. Never forget that all of this is because @SimGillDA got his feelings hurt by protestors speaking out against him upholding and excusing police brutality.”

Gill has been widely criticized for the felony charges brought against the alleged vandals, including gang enhancement accusations which could lead to sentences of up to life in prison. The Salt Lake County Black Democratic Caucus called it an abuse of power and withdrew its support for Gill, a Democrat. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called the charges excessive. Defense attorneys agreed.

The group released a statement Wednesday saying they supported the protesters and “are disappointed the police are using taxpayer funds for this reason.”

The statement encouraged Kitchen to “take that passion up to the hill and work with his colleagues to change that law that started this outcry.”

But a statement arguing the opposite came later from Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police. That group suggested that Kitchen should not “donate his tax-payer salary towards the destruction of state property.”

The police union also notes that Kitchen sits on several legislative law enforcement committees and should not “be dumb enough to leave evidence that he knew it was for vandalism, by writing in the Venmo donation that it is for paint.”

The group is calling for him to step down from the committees. And it asks Senate leadership to open an ethics investigation over Kitchen’s actions. Additionally, it calls on Gill to charge Kitchen as a co-conspirator to the vandalism.

Gill’s office has already hired an outside prosecutor to oversee cases filed against eight protesters accused of damaging the district attorney’s building.

Judge Mark Kouris, the 3rd District presiding judge, ruled on Monday that the protesters' cases will be moved out of Salt Lake City's Matheson courthouse up to Summit County to avoid a conflict.

“The proximity of the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office to the Matheson Courthouse to be directly and/or indirectly affected by the recent protest,” was the reason he cited in the order of reassignment.

No court dates have been set as of Wednesday.

—Salt Lake Tribune reporters Jessica Miller and Courtney Tanner contributed to this article.