Utah cattle inspectors were supplied with AR-15s and ATVs that they didn’t need or use

Audit shows numerous problems with oversight of the Agriculture Department’s brand inspection program.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Ranchers move cattle through Logan Canyon in August 2019. State livestock inspectors will verify the ownership or “brand” of horses and cattle whenever the animals are sold, taken to slaughter or moved across state lines.

Utah cattle inspectors got rifles they didn’t need and ATVs they didn’t use. They deposited fees in their private bank accounts before reimbursing the state and drove state vehicles for personal use.

Those were some of the findings of an audit released Thursday that criticized the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food for having a “weak control structure” that “would not adequately prevent fraud and abuse from occurring.”

Conducted by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, the investigation revealed that:

• Livestock inspectors were depositing cash fees into their personal accounts and then writing personal checks to the department.

• The inspection program purchased several “high-dollar assets,” including horse trailers and ATVs, that were never used.

• The program bought 15 AR-15 rifles for $15,000 that inspectors do not use or need.

• Cattle inspectors were using state vehicles for personal use.

• Inspectors charged inconsistent fees, and they were turning in reports and fees months after collecting them.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food responded that it already had begun tightening the reins on its livestock inspection program.

The issues resulting in lack of oversight of assets and purchasing all took place before 2017, said the department, adding that with appointment of new leaders since 2019, “policies are now in place to prevent the potential for abuse.”

Commissioner Craig Buttars told the members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Thursday evening that in the past month — since being appointed by new Gov. Spencer Cox — he has “learned things that have caused concern.”

He sees the audit “as an opportunity for our department to gain back some of the respect that it deserves,” he said. “And we have taken steps already on most — if not all — of the recommendations in the audit.”

For their part, committee members expressed concerned about the findings.

“My time on the audit committee has be short,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, “but I’m not sure I’ve seen one like this. The tracking and accountability is pretty poor.”

Auditor General Kade Minchey, who has been conducting state audits for some 20 years, agreed. “We don’t see this level of control deficiencies very often.”

Lawmakers were most concerned about the commingling of personal and state funds as well as the excessive purchases.

“Taking the money and putting it in their personal account? Whoa!” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. She wondered about how much interest the state had lost and how the state could be sure that cash wasn’t taken. “How would we know if they bought a Twinkie and a drink on the way home?”

This is not the first review that uncovered oversight problems at UDAF.

In November, the state auditor released a sweeping investigation of the department under the leadership of then-Commissioner Kerry Gibson. That probe reported potential problems with the cannabis grower selection process, inappropriate use of state cars, and questionable travel practices.

Commingled funds

The job of livestock inspectors — part of the department’s animal industry division — is to verify the ownership, or “brand,” of horses and cattle whenever the animals are sold, taken to slaughter or moved across state lines.

The fees collected for these inspections are then used to fund the program. In fiscal 2020, more than $1.077 million was collected by inspectors.

Auditors called for immediate improvement in fee collections after they discovered funds were routinely commingled.

Brand inspectors deposited cash receipts into their own bank accounts and then sent personal checks to UDAF, the audit said. “Commingling of funds is a control weakness that should be avoided.”

UDAF said it has established a statewide bank account and started an electronic fee collection system, which has brought the program into compliance.

The report also listed several examples of inspectors submitting certificates and fees months after being conducted.

“After reviewing all brand inspection receipts for fiscal year 2020, we found that 352 brand certificate receipts were sent in late,” the report said, “accounting for more than half of all receipts in 2020.”

Brand inspectors also have been inconsistent when charging for inspections, which are a minimum of $20 per stop.

In southern Utah, for example, if multiple ranchers are at the same feedlot, the inspector will charge each of them the $20 fee, auditors explained. By contrast, if there are multiple ranchers at a northern Utah feedlot, only one rancher is charged the $20 fee, while the other ranchers are charged per head.

UDAF said an electronic brand inspection system was put into place in December 2020 that automatically calculates correct fees and eliminates over- and undercharging.

Questionable gun purchases

The audit also dinged the monitoring and purchasing of firearms.

The brand inspection program had 10 full-time brand inspectors — nine of whom are certified by Peace Officer Standards and Training. Part-time brand inspectors are not POST-certified.

Each of the POST-certified inspectors is equipped with a sidearm and a shotgun. According to statute, the brand inspectors may, if needed, stop any vehicle carrying livestock or livestock carcasses for the purpose of examining brands.

In 2017, the animal industry division bought 15 AR-15 semi-automatic rifles for POST-certified inspectors at a cost of nearly $15,000.

However, inspectors do not use or need them, the audit states. Most of the inspectors do not take the rifle with them in their vehicles. Instead, the rifles are left at home in a secure case.

Auditors contacted Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Montana and found that none of those states issues rifles to brand inspectors. Most equip the employees with sidearms and shotguns.

The current division director and department management confirm that there is no justifiable reason for inspectors to have a rifle, the audit states.

The UDAF also has had to improve how it tracks its weapons.

The audit discovered that one AR-15 was still in the possession of the previous division director. The person was still employed at UDAF but not in a POST-certified role. “This situation constitutes a concerning lack of control over weapons and official law enforcement identification that must be corrected.”

UDAF says it created new policies in September 2020 that require employees to surrender firearms when they retire or are terminated. The UDAF also adopted a policy this month that requires employees to surrender guns if they change jobs within the department.

The audit identified other pricey purchases.

Over the past 17 years, the brand inspection program bought several “high-dollar assets” that were never used, including four horse trailers — one that cost $15,310 — and an ATV, which ran $7, 249.

Two other ATVs — costing $6,599 each — were used only once.

The audit noted that the current division director said most of these items are not needed and would go to state surplus. The report advised the agency to use tighter controls to prevent such costly and unnecessary purchases.