Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Friday his office will launch a criminal investigation into sexual assault allegations against his longtime friend Tim Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad, the anti-trafficking nonprofit Ballard founded.
In a nearly 10-minute video published Friday afternoon, Reyes also said he would not seek reelection next year and would leave office after his current term is complete. The Salt Lake Tribune first reported Reyes’ decision not to run again late Thursday.
Reyes said he met for several hours with the women who accused Ballard of sexual assault and, “after hearing their stories in person, I believe them and am heartbroken for what they endured and the trauma they will face their entire lives.”
“I apologized to each of them,” Reyes added, “that my past friendship and strong associations with OUR contributed to an environment that made them feel powerless and without a voice to fight back for many years.”
Reyes, who was appointed as attorney general in 2013, said he would work to make sure the women get the support they need. While he is recused from involvement in the case, he said “my office will conduct a thorough statewide investigation of Tim Ballard, Operation Underground Railroad, The SPEAR Fund to determine what criminal conduct occurred, if any.”
Ballard joined The SPEAR Fund after the allegations of sexual misconduct led to his ouster from OUR.
In a video statement Friday, Suzette Rasmussen, the attorney for the women who are suing Ballard, said her clients appreciate Reyes meeting with them and accept his apology and are grateful for any “future efforts towards transparency and accountability.”
”Mr. Reyes is the first and only person so far to accept responsibility for past misjudgments and for his role in supporting Tim Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad,” Rasmussen said. “The victims view this as a positive first step toward acknowledging the pain caused by Mr. Ballard, OUR and the other entities and individuals included in our lawsuits.”
OUR said in a statement Friday night that it would cooperate fully with any investigation by the attorney general’s office. ”We are confident that the facts are on O.U.R.’s side and remain committed to the work that our strong, resilient team of dedicated operators, staff and volunteers is doing to help fight human trafficking,” the statement said.
Spokespeople for Ballard and The SPEAR Fund did not immediately respond to messages Friday seeking a comment.
Reyes under scrutiny
Reyes has been dogged in recent weeks by questions about his close friendship with Ballard, as well as Reyes’ use of campaign donations on luxury travel and false claims made by his charitable foundation.
In announcing his departure at the end of his current term, Reyes becomes the third attorney general to leave amid a scandal. His two predecessors were both charged with, but not convicted of, multiple felonies.
Reyes said in the video that he had strong poll numbers and broad support, and was confident he could be reelected if he chose.
“Trust me, I do believe I would win, but winning another election would keep me from even more important personal priorities,” he said. “After much prayer and reflection, it will be time to return to my family without an emergency case or conference constantly pulling me away.”
He said he would serve out the remainder of his current term, which ends in January 2025.
Reyes, whose parents have Filipino with Spanish roots, is the first and only minority elected to statewide office in Utah.
In September, after U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney announced he would not run again, Reyes said he would not seek the Senate seat — instead he would support Ballard — and would run for another term as attorney general.
Days later, Ballard was publicly accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. He is now a defendant in several civil lawsuits alleging he sexually abused and assaulted multiple women who were participating in OUR child rescue operations. He is also the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation after one woman reported him to Lindon police for alleged sexual assault.
Reyes, who had been friends with Ballard for a decade — taking part in OUR operations, helping to raise money for the organization, being credited as an associate producer on the movie “Sound of Freedom,” which is loosely based on Ballard’s work — called the allegations shocking and withdrew his support of Ballard’s potential candidacy.
Additionally, The Tribune has reported on Reyes’ use of campaign donations to stay in luxury resorts and to take donors to shoot hogs from helicopters in Texas, as well as false claims Reyes’ charitable foundation made about causes it supported.
Last month, Utah lawmakers initiated a sweeping audit of Reyes’ office. Two weeks ago, he was named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit alleging he attempted to silence a critic of Ballard’s organization — which Reyes has denied.
Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown announced three weeks ago that he had formed an exploratory committee, chaired by former Gov. Gary Herbert, to test the waters for a potential bid for attorney general.
In a statement Friday, Brown echoed Herbert’s earlier social media post, saying he had engaged in “positive conversations with countless community leaders about the conservative leadership I would bring the attorney general’s office” and he would make “an exciting announcement” in the coming weeks.
“I appreciate Sean’s many years of service to the state of Utah,” Brown said, “and wish him the best as he concludes his final year in office.”
Reyes was appointed to office in December 2013 by then-Gov. Herbert, replacing Attorney General John Swallow, who resigned amid a series of investigations, including one by the Utah House that found Swallow had hung a “for sale” sign on the door of the attorney general’s office.
Reyes came into office vowing to restore trust and integrity to the office. Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis said Friday that he “has done the exact opposite, using his position for political and personal gain at every turn.”
“While his decision not to run for reelection is good news for Utahns, who deserve a competent, ethical, and accountable attorney general,” she said in a statement, “he should resign instead of spending the next year continuing to abuse his position of authority and failing to do the work of the people.”