Utah’s two statewide investigative units are in a lingering turf battle that hinders cooperation, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.
And disputes between the State Bureau of Investigation, part of the Department of Public Safety, and the attorney general’s Investigations Division likely are based on some mistaken beliefs.
For example, while the two units overlap in areas of authority and may believe the other steps on their toes, auditors found that “there is currently no significant duplication” in the actual cases they handle.
Still, “We observed a tension that exists between” them, auditors wrote. “We hope the information in this report will serve to dispel mistaken opinions and foster better collaboration between the two offices.”
The legislative auditor general’s office said it performed the audit because lawmakers and other state officials questioned possibly duplicative roles of the two agencies, and because of ongoing battles over funding and staffing.
It noted disagreements between the agencies grew, in part, from “a handful of bills in the Legislature creating or seeking to create new investigative mandates in each office,” often at the expense of the other.
For example, battles occurred over which agency should oversee the SECURE (Statewide Enforcement of Crimes by Undocumented Residents) Strike Force, which targets major crime associated with illegal immigration and human trafficking.
The attorney general’s office now runs the strike force, but bills in the Legislature have unsuccessfully tried to shift it to the Department of Public Safety — using, in part, an argument that the attorney general’s office may have a conflict of interest by overseeing both the investigation and prosecution of cases.
Attorney General Sean Reyes, in a written response to the audit, acknowledges that when a 2014 bill sought to take away his office’s oversight of the SECURE Strike Force, it “immediately defended the excellence of the current model of SECURE.”
He adds that since then, “There have been additional legislative actions and beliefs that have further complicated collaboration.”
Despite the audit’s findings, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said in an interview, “I think we work well together,” and said he has had officers assigned to the SECURE Strike Force for years.
He added that he and Reyes ”communicate regularly and are looking for ways that we can compliment what each other does, and make sure the services provided are the best they can be.”
The audit looked at concerns about potential conflicts of interest in having the attorney general oversee both investigations and prosecution in the same office, and after consulting with the American Bar Association and the National District Attorneys Association, found the practice was acceptable.
Also, it said the two agencies are structured similarly to agencies in six neighboring states. Auditors wrote they “found no clear best practices that would necessitate immediate changes to the current statutory mandates of either Utah agency.”
Auditors attempted to compare the efficiency and effectiveness of the two agencies, but said “poor records management in both offices limited our ability to analyze and compare the two.” Both agencies vowed to improve that.
Also, auditors looked at cases investigated by the two agencies in 2016 and concluded “there is currently no significant duplication” of effort.
The audit noted that tension between them apparently “stems from personal disagreements,” since it saw that the two agencies work well with many others — including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local law enforcement agencies.
So, it said, “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the leadership of each office to find ways to communicate openly and improve operations where needed.”
Leaders of both agencies, in written responses, vowed cooperation in the future.
Squires wrote that his State Bureau of Investigation “is committed to the continue need for cooperation and collaboration with the attorney general‘s office.”
Reyes, the attorney general, wrote that his office “has excellent relationships with multiple agencies and looks forward to better collaboration with DPS, including with regard to the SECURE Strike Force.”
Spencer Austin, chief criminal deputy to Reyes, also said, “Where you have concurrent jurisdictions between law enforcement agencies, there will inevitably be times when we could communicate better to avoid tension. However, we believe any misunderstandings of the past are being worked out and, indeed, the audit shows concurrent jurisdiction serves Utahns well.”
He added, “The Utah Attorney General’s Office and Department of Public Safety have partnered effectively on the SECURE Strike Force and during Operation Rio Grande. We look forward to continuing to improve our communications as we work with them to protect Utahns.”