Who should be investigating Tim Ballard? Utah Gov. Cox and a former federal judge disagree.

Attorney General Sean Reyes, a longtime friend of Ballard, announced earlier this month that his office would investigate sexual assault allegations against the Operation Underground Railroad founder.

Gov. Spencer Cox believes the Utah attorney general’s office is capable of conducting an impartial criminal investigation of Tim Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad — even with the office’s close involvement with the anti-trafficking nonprofit and the nearly $1 million that OUR has donated to the office in recent years.

“I have great faith in the professionals that work in that office,” Cox said in a Wednesday news conference, explaining that the attorney general’s office is large and has employees with high ethical standards.

Cox said other entities are also investigating, but he declined to say what other agencies might be involved.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to media during a monthly news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

But Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge, said that Attorney General Sean Reyes’ decadelong friendship with Ballard and close ties to OUR create such a pervasive conflict of interest that his office should not be deciding if anyone ultimately should face criminal charges.

“This really doesn’t look like a good case for the attorney general’s office to be making prosecutorial decisions on,” Cassell said in an interview.

Reyes announced earlier this month that his office was launching a criminal investigation into allegations that Ballard sexually assaulted women who had volunteered to participate in OUR child rescue operations. The accusations are the focus of three civil lawsuits and at least one other criminal investigation.

A screening memo prevents Reyes from participating in the investigation because he has had a close friendship with Ballard for a decade. The attorney general also went on OUR operations, helped raise money for the nonprofit and received an associate producer credit on the movie “Sound of Freedom,” which is loosely based on Ballard’s story. Others in Reyes’ office have also had involvement with OUR.

Additionally, OUR has donated $960,000 to the attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force over a six-year period beginning in 2017, according to public records.

Cassell said the investigators in the attorney general’s office are skilled and distant enough from Reyes that they can do the investigation, but decisions on things like whether to seek subpoenas or file criminal charges “need to go out of the office.”

There are two options for doing that, Cassell said. One is to deputize a prosecutor — a county attorney from another jurisdiction or a former prosecutor now in private practice, for example. The other is a rarely used practice of asking a panel of district court judges to summon a grand jury to hear evidence gathered by investigators and, if warranted, issue criminal charges.

“This is the kind of case where an independent assessment by a judicial panel that oversees the grand jury could provide some confidence to the public that the case is being handled fairly,” Cassell said. “Public confidence would be best served moving the case entirely out of the attorney general’s office, one way or another.”

For nearly two weeks, the attorney general’s office has not answered questions about whether the case would be handled internally or handed off to another jurisdiction. Officials also have not answered questions about who else in the office is walled off from dealing with the case and whether the OUR donations create a conflict of interest beyond Reyes’ own relationship.

“The Utah Attorney General’s Office has full confidence in the ethics and professionalism of the investigators who will be examining the Tim Ballard case,” a spokesperson for the office said in a statement Wednesday evening. “It is a priority that we ensure that justice be served in this case from beginning to end. As is our practice with other ongoing investigations, the office will not comment further.”

That confidence is not shared by the women who are accusing Ballard of sexual assault and suing him and OUR.

“It remains difficult for our clients to feel trust in the attorney general’s office when it has been run so closely with OUR and Tim Ballard,” Alan Mortensen, an attorney for the women, said. “As the governor referenced, our clients are grateful that other eyes remain on these very sensitive matters.”

Reyes said earlier this month that he met with the women accusing Ballard, adding that he apologized to them that his friendship with Ballard made them feel unsafe bringing complaints to his office.

“I believe them,” Reyes said, “and am heartbroken for what they endured and the trauma they will face their entire lives.”

Given the “very clear and harsh tones” of Reyes’ statement, Cox said he believes those in the attorney general’s office “can conduct an investigation impartially and they will do that.”

“I felt like that was a really important message to get out there,” Cox said, “and I think it sends a message to the other attorneys who may be conducting this investigation that they have the full blessing of the attorney general himself to conduct that and take it where it leads.”

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