Utah County Attorney sued after he dismissed a stalking charge against a political donor

A woman is asking a federal judge to ban David Leavitt’s office from prosecuting her case.

Alicia Koehler just wanted her case to go to trial. She had been stalked for years, she told police. She needed a jury to decide if the man she had briefly dated was guilty and would face consequences.

But when she met with Utah County Attorney David Leavitt in July 2020, he urged that they try and resolve the case without a conviction, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday. He thought it would be best for her, he told her, so that she could move on.

There was a moment in that meeting, she later recalled, that made her feel sick to her stomach: Leavitt disclosed that the accused stalker had donated to his campaign for attorney general. The man had also gone on a church mission with Leavitt’s brother, the county attorney said.

“I was thrown off guard a little bit,” she said in an interview. “I did not feel like he was on my side.”

Leavitt ended up dismissing the third-degree felony case against the man Koehler accused, though it was refiled a year later. The complaint filed Tuesday accuses Leavitt of engaging in “illegal, discriminatory and abhorrent conduct” to benefit a political donor and family friend.

Leavitt, who has served as the Utah County attorney since 2019, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that he does not believe he did anything improper, noting that the campaign donation from the man was less than $50.

“You’ve got to use your common sense here,” he said. “If word gets out you can conflict an aggressive prosecutor out of a case for $50, you will have everyone and their dog donating $50.”

Koehler’s attorney is now asking a federal judge to ban the Utah County Attorney’s Office from handling the case.

“Stalking victims need to be taken seriously and their safety should be prioritized,” Koehler’s attorney, Michael Young, said. “Failure to do so is a breach of public trust and a fundamental failure for one holding public office.”

Stalking allegations

The lawsuit revolves around a criminal case involving a man whom Koehler had secured a stalking injunction against in 2016.

Utah County prosecutors alleged three years later that the man had violated that injunction, and he was charged with a third-degree felony. Court records show the man sent an unsolicited email to Koehler in December 2018, which included excerpts including, “very hard for me to understand how hard you have been on me … You have made me out to be the demon … Why you have despised me and ruined my hope for happiness, unknown.”

Prosecutors noted at the time that he went to football games that Koehler attended with her family — despite Koehler telling him that she didn’t want him there. He found out where she lived, prosecutors alleged, and sent her unwanted gifts on several occasions.

Lance Bastian was the initially assigned to prosecute the stalking case. He recalled Tuesday that the suspect and his defense attorney met with him once, toting a giant suitcase full of binders. The defendant told him there was more to their relationship than Koehler had let on.

Bastian said he wasn’t swayed by the meeting.

“I just kept saying, ‘If you didn’t think the injunction was valid, you should have challenged it,’” he said, “‘not violated it.’”

Soon after that meeting, Bastian said Leavitt called him into his office and handed him a binder of materials to review for the case, asking him to see if what was inside changed his mind about prosecuting it.

Leavitt said the binder had come from his brother, who had served a mission with the defendant. Leavitt hadn’t read it, he said, but passed it on to Bastian to review.

The materials inside seemed to have been prepared by the defendant, Bastian said. They included “self-serving statements,” descriptions of the man’s relationship with Koehler and some law enforcement records.

Once Bastian reviewed the materials, he told Leavitt he still felt the case was strong and should be prosecuted.

“Well, that being the case, I’m going to go ahead and assign it to myself,” Bastian recalled Leavitt saying.

“It was extremely unusual for him to take on a case like this,” Bastian said in an interview. “He did not carry any kind of regular caseload.”

Leavitt said he took the case on because he was concerned about the defendant posting negative remarks about Koehler online. He said he sometimes gets involved in cases that his office prosecutes if a citizen brings up concerns about them. In this case, he said he heard from his brother, the Utah County sheriff and the man’s defense lawyer.

He added: “I did not order Lance Bastian to get rid of the case.”

Bastian was never involved in the case again, he said. As the months went by, he would occasionally look it up, expecting it to be dismissed.

“That was clearly what he wanted me to do with it,” Bastian said. “He wanted me to dismiss it and I didn’t feel I had any basis to dismiss.”

Bastian left the Utah County Attorney’s Office in August 2020, in part because of the way Koehler’s case was handled, he said. He had prosecuted sex crimes, and said he also opposed a decision Leavitt made to mix less-experienced prosecutors into the special victims unit who didn’t want the job.

“I was a career prosecutor,” Bastian said. “And I probably would have stayed there my whole career but for David Leavitt coming in.”

A recorded meeting

Koehler found out through a victim advocate that Leavitt had taken over the stalking case. She recalled in an interview that she immediately felt concerned, noting that she had seen her accused stalker post comments on Leavitt’s Facebook page in support of the county attorney’s reform policies.

So Koehler met with Leavitt in July 2020. And she recorded their conversation in his office.

According to that recording, Leavitt began their conversation by telling Koehler that he “took” the case from Bastian, “because every time I turn around, I’m getting bombarded by somebody with this case.”

Koehler expressed her apprehension, bringing up the defendant’s posts on Leavitt’s Facebook page.

“I’m just saying he is a huge supporter of you and fan,” Koehler told Leavitt, according to the recording. “This is very concerning to me.”

In response, Leavitt said that when he was the Juab County Attorney, he prosecuted people whose property neighbored his and brought cases against others who held prominent positions in his ward within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When Koehler reiterated her concern, Leavitt told her that if he prosecuted his political opponents, “they would also say that’s a conflict of interest.”

“It’s just — it is what it is,” he told her.

Later, Leavitt can be heard saying that the alleged stalker donated $49.99 towards Leavitt’s unsuccessful 2020 campaign for attorney general and told her that the man had also accompanied his brother on a church mission.

“I got nothing to hide here,” he said.

Leavitt at the time went on to point out that taking the case to trial would take longer than typical, because jury trials had been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That delay could work as an advantage in persuading the defendant to come to an agreement, he said.

“What I’m trying to do is put together something that gives you the best possible scenario,” he said. “A life that doesn’t involve that.”

Leavitt also suggested dropping the felony charge against the man on the condition that he would be barred from contacting Koehler or speaking about her online. If the man ever did, prosecutors would refile the case, he said.

Koehler wasn’t convinced that Leavitt was genuine, she told The Tribune.

“I didn’t feel at any time that he was looking out for my best interests,” she said. “Period.”

Later that same day, Koehler emailed Leavitt, sharing that she felt ambushed in their meeting and wanted to see any proposed resolution in writing before she agreed to it.

“You do have a connection,” she wrote to Leavitt. “There’s way too many coincidences that put you over this case, at a time when he was only posting about you and your reforms in the justice system. So my question to you is … does this deal benefit you? Or me?”

Case dismissal

Leavitt never responded to her email, according to Koehler’s lawsuit. But they did continue communicating over text.

That August, Koehler sent Leavitt screenshots of her alleged stalker again posting supportive messages on Leavitt’s Facebook page. The lawsuit alleges Leavitt responded, again explaining the deal he wanted to offer, this time noting that the defendant had dropped off “evidence” and asked that Koehler be prosecuted instead.

Koehler’s lawyer alleged this was manipulation — a move done to encourage her into believing that a jury trial would not be in her best interest.

Two months later, in October, Leavitt went to court and asked for the criminal case to be dismissed. Notes from the court docket state that the accused man agreed to stay away from Koehler and not talk about her on a public platform or online.

But Koehler said she wasn’t told there would be a hearing in the case and didn’t know until months later that it had been dismissed.

Last August, the man accused of stalking Koehler asked a judge to expunge the stalking case. Koehler’s lawyers allege in their complaint that while doing so, the man accused her of “many false things irrelevant to the underlying stalking charge and defamatory of her character.” The man is not listed as a defendant in Koehler’s lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the man used the expungement petition as a platform to defame and abuse her — harm that the complaint argues came as a result of Leavitt’s decision to initially dismiss the criminal case.

“This harm would not have occurred but for Leavitt’s discriminatory policies of offering leniency to his male campaign donors and friends,” the lawsuit reads.

Court records show that a Utah County prosecutor refiled the criminal case in September, nearly a year after Leavitt asked for it to be dismissed.

The records records don’t indicate why it was filed again. Koehler’s lawsuit alleges that Leavitt had it refiled “after he heard this case might present a problem to him in the upcoming election.”

Leavitt denied that his decision was politically motivated. He said his office screened the case after the man wrote defamatory statements about Koehler in his expungement petition, which violated their agreement that he not speak about her on a public platform.

The county attorney said he felt the lawsuit filed Tuesday may be politically motivated by former prosecutors, including one who works for the law firm that filed the case. Young, Koehler’s attorney, said that former prosecutor isn’t involved in the lawsuit and that “was not the motivation behind” it.

Koehler said she doesn’t believe the refiled stalking case can be handled properly under Leavitt’s leadership, and wants the case moved to another county attorney’s office.

She also is seeking punitive monetary damages and a declaration from the judge that Leavitt’s policies and procedures “allow cases with female victims to be dismissed on illegal grounds,” which violates constitutional equal protection rights.

“The whole case just upsets me on every level,” Koehler said. “I cannot express how much more revictimization this has caused for me.”