Former suburban Utah fire chief charged with misusing public money

Prosecutors say Bluffdale’s ex-chief paid employees for hours they never worked.

(Bluffdale Fire) John Roberts, former Bluffdale fire chief, has been charged with misusing public money.

After a tumultuous mayoral campaign and a monthslong criminal investigation, the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office has charged Bluffdale’s former fire chief with misusing public money and falsifying government records.

Prosecutors say the then-chief, John Roberts, paid firefighters for days they hadn’t worked — amounting to almost $86,000 in wage overpayments — and altered official payroll and work logs.

Roberts faces one second-degree felony count of misuse of public money and five misdemeanor counts of falsification or alteration of government records. The felony carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, while each of the misdemeanors is punishable by up to six months in jail.

The Salt Lake Tribune attempted to reach Roberts, 68, on Monday and Tuesday but received no response.

Roberts allegedly altered official government logs from December 2018 to August 2019, according to charging documents filed Monday in 3rd District Court. Several hundred reports had handwritten modifications, adding employees to a daily log or altering work hours of those present at the stations.

Those records were inconsistent with shift requests and logs from Emergency Medical Services and other fire departments, prosecutors allege. Several firefighters, for example, were working at other fire departments at times that were manually entered into Bluffdale’s department records.

Bluffdale City Attorney Todd Sheeran estimated the payment for those hours in which firefighters were not present totaled about $86,000, according to the court documents.

Roberts acknowledged that he had intentionally altered the time logs to generate additional pay for the employees, the charges state, and that he knew the conduct was wrong.

Roberts was the suburban Salt Lake County city’s first full-time fire chief. He resigned in 2020 after the city heard complaints from three firefighters.

The trio cited issues with Roberts’ leadership, improper coverage, lack of guidelines around COVID-19 and unsafe decisions at fire scenes. Complainants also said if anyone “crossed” the chief, firefighters worried their shifts would be cut.

Roberts also was accused of providing maintenance contracts to relatives’ businesses and placing employees in positions for which they were not trained.

The accusations came to light when Roberts ran unsuccessfully for Bluffdale mayor in 2021. At the time, he said that the controversy had “more to do with the election than anything else.”

“I always stayed within budget. I ran my own business for many years as well. I have a great deal of experience with staying under budget,” he said just before the 2021 vote. “We always had the coverage we needed for the station, and I have always stood to protect the crews and the residents we serve in Bluffdale.”

Natalie Hall won the mayoral race soundly, topping Roberts by more than 50 percentage points.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.