Amid controversy over a trip to Switzerland, one Utah Transit Authority Board member resigned Wednesday — and the agency said two others are expected to follow suit soon.
UTA board Vice Chairman Chris Bleak resigned — although he says the action was unrelated to the privately funded Swiss trip, and had been announced last week to the Utah County mayors who had appointed him.
He was one of two board members who traveled with a delegation of state politicians to Switzerland in late September to see the benefits of mountain rail systems, and to help recruit a Swiss rail-car company to Utah.
The UTA board discussed that controversial trip during a closed-door session on Wednesday. When members emerged, they announced the resignation — and said the board was disturbed about some trip details it had learned only through news stories.
UTA Chairman H. David Burton said two more UTA board members are expected to resign soon, but he declined to name them or to discuss reasons for their expected departures.
However, board member Sheldon Killpack, a former state Senate majority leader, also went on the trip with Bleak.
And board member Justin Allen, along with Bleak, last year created a political action committee, named Utah 2040, which funded part of the trip. That private funding, including PAC donations from companies which built rail projects for UTA, helped keep the travel out of headlines before voters decided Proposition 1 to raise sales taxes for transportation. Had UTA paid for the trip, new rules would have required board approval in a public meeting.
Several current and past UTA leaders combined to keep the agency's direct fingerprints off that trip after a series of earlier trips had stirred controversy.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, UTA's former chairman, led the trip. Jeff Hartley, a longtime lobbyist for UTA, organized travel details at Hughes' request. Funding came from Utah 2040 PAC, the Utah World Trade Center, a Hughes leadership PAC and from participants' own pockets.
UTA said the trip "was not approved by the board, nor did the board receive notice that the trip was taking place," even though it included two UTA board members and two of its longtime lobbyists.
Bleak, Allen and Killpack all were absent from Wednesday's meeting.
Bleak, who did not attend because he said his wife had suffered an injury, told The Tribune in an interview that his resignation had nothing to do with the Swiss trip.
"I'm doing work on a project that doesn't allow me to stay on the board at the same time," he said. Bleak said it is too early to talk about specifics, but the project has some transit ties.
"We looked at how we could address that with recusals and those sorts of things, but it just didn't make sense for me or them," he said. "It just made more sense to step down."
Bleak once was chief of staff to former House Speaker Greg Curtis, who also went on the trip and was a UTA lobbyist. Bleak is a former executive director of the Utah Republican Party. Allen is a past political director of the Utah GOP.
UTA General Counsel Jayme Blakesley said the agency did not know about the trip before it occurred. UTA learned about it later, and heard that Bleak and Killpack were in a meeting there with leaders of Stadler, a rail-car company thinking of building a manufacturing facility in Utah.
That created some havoc with UTA, since Stadler was among those interested in a competitive bid process for sharing UTA's large FrontRunner maintenance facility. Blakesley said UTA stopped that competitive process, but later reinstated it after figuring no one in the meeting was involved in decision-making about the issue at hand.
Blakesley said when UTA first found out about the trip, it had been led to believe that board members Bleak and Killpack and UTA lobbyists Hartley and Curtis "were working in an individual capacity. Documents show that perhaps they held themselves out as acting in some official UTA capacity. That was not an authorized action."
Documents obtained by The Tribune show that travel plans listed their affiliations with UTA.
Blakesley said UTA worries about that because only certain people are authorized to negotiate for UTA or act as its agent, and no one on that trip had such permission. He said the agency will continue to look into what happened.
Blakesly also announced after the closed-door meeting about the trip that UTA had terminated its lobbying contracts with Hartley and Curtis.
However, in a later interview, Blakesley said that occurred last week and implied it had nothing to do with the Swiss trip. He said the reason for the contract terminations was that UTA's chief of governmental relations recently retired, "and we're in the process of rethinking those functions. This was terminated because of that."
Among politicians on the trip, documents said, were state Sens. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, and state Reps. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. The wives of Madsen and Anderegg traveled with the group. Anderegg said he personally raised money to pay for his travel and that of his spouse.
Hughes — who made several trips to Switzerland for UTA — said in an interview earlier this week that he wishes more officials could see how its mountain rail systems could benefit Utah's canyons and ski resorts.
"If I were [the late billionaire] Howard Hughes instead of Greg Hughes, I would personally pay for every one of my colleagues to see what's going on over there," he said. "If you go to a country like Switzerland, you can see best practices in action. And there's a lot to be learned from that."
Hughes said while past UTA trips planted seeds of understanding, they brought controversy because taxpayers funded them. So, "I don't think there's a role for UTA to participate in that [Swiss trips] any longer."
Before board members went into their closed-door meeting, they approved a new ethics policy aimed at increasing agency vetting of potential conflicts of interest for executives and board members. New financial disclosures will contain much more detailed information, including business dealings, assets, outside positions and gifts or travel reimbursements, but that data will be available only to UTA compliance officers. Basic conflict disclosures required by state law will continue to be publicly available.