Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen is quietly seeking donors to a legal defense fund after revelations that as chief of the Unified Fire Authority (UFA) he had awarded himself and other top managers large bonuses and other perks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Such fundraising could run afoul of Utah law.
Jensen stepped down from the fire authority post in August but was successful retaining his council seat in November's election. He ran opposed only by a write-in candidate.
Two weeks ago, however, a damning state audit emerged.
State Auditor John Dougall's report advised the UFA board to seek a criminal investigation of Jensen and the agency's former deputy chief, Gaylord Scott, for allegedly misusing public money, engaging in nepotism and manipulating department policies for their own benefit.
The UFA board voted unanimously last week to forward the auditor's recommendation to law-enforcement authorities.
Eagle Mountain Mayor Christopher Pengra, vice chairman of the 12-member UFA board, said the state auditor's report is valuable because the fire agency should be above reproach and accountable to taxpayers.
"We take this very seriously." he said. "We will make sure we are diligent following these recommendations."
According to Jensen, however, the compensation was "approved, authorized, signed and reviewed" by the UFA board, which consists solely of elected officials.
In recent days, Jensen, a Republican in his fifth term on the County Council, circulated a request to lobbyists and others with political connections:
"Sir, it's Michael Jensen. I'm trying to set up a legal defense and a public relations fund to help with the bad audit and the fall out with it. Any chance you could help with some funding? Let me know. Thanks Michael."
The Tribune has since learned that the fund, called the Michael Jensen Defense Fund, has been established at a Magna address.
Jensen would neither deny nor confirm the existence of the fund, saying, "Sorry, I'm not going to go there. I'm considering all my options."
According to Utah law, elected officials can use campaign funds for legal defense relating to their office. Those campaign contributions must be publicly disclosed.
However, an elected official raising money for a legal defense that has nothing to do with his office could be in violation of the law, said David Irvine, an attorney and former legislator who previously served as co-counsel for Utahns for Ethical Government.
It's unlikely, he said, that donors would be contributing if Jensen were not an elected leader in a position of power. Soliciting donations for a defense fund unrelated to his elected office would be unethical and could be illegal.
Mark Thomas, state elections director, agreed such fundraising could be illegal if it were determined that it was unconnected to an elected leader's office.
Friday, Jensen said his efforts are not outside ethical or legal bounds.
"My attorney and I have reviewed it and don't believe there is anything illegal or improper," he said.
The audit said Jensen may have misused as much as $370,000 in public money, including taxpayer-paid junkets and incentives for his top lieutenants. He also was hiring relatives in violation of nepotism rules, according to the audit.
Jensen's chief deputy, Scott, also was singled out in the audit for breaking rules for his personal benefit.
The audit also recommended the UFA board attempt to recover nearly $500,000 that the former chief and other UFA administrators had received through incentives, travel, lodging and meal reimbursements, severance packages and clothing allowances.
Pengra said the UFA forwarded the audit recommendations for a criminal probe to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
But Gill said his office will not take the case due to conflicts of interest (the County Council oversees the D.A.'s budget). Gill said the Utah attorney general's office agreed to investigate the allegations outlined in the audit.
The attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The UFA serves four cities — Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper and Holladay — as well as unincorporated Salt Lake County and the Unified Fire Service Area (UFSA), often referred to as "the district."
The UFSA is a district made up of five municipalities — Eagle Mountain, Herriman, Midvale, Riverton and Taylorsville — that levies property taxes to build fire stations operated by UFA.
The UFSA employs the UFA to provide firefighters and emergency medical services to community members in its boundaries.
— Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke and reporter Mike Gorrell contributed to this story