Ott saga grows political as Republicans urge Gill to resign and Dems point at GOP hypocrisy

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Staff photos of the Salt Lake Tribune staff. Paul Rolly.

The death of former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott has careened into a political firestorm as Republicans call on Democratic District Attorney Sim Gill to resign for failing to protect Ott, and Democrats counter with cries of GOP hypocrisy.

Ott died Thursday after a yearlong, headline-grabbing saga over allegations his Alzheimer’s disease was being concealed from the public by his chief of staff, Julie Dole, and his secretary and former fiancee, Karmen Sanone.

Now, the tragic circumstances surrounding his illness and passing have been thrust deeper into the political arena with partisan accusations flying in all directions as his family prepares a funeral and burial this Saturday.

The Salt Lake County Republican Party will hold a news conference Tuesday urging Gill to step down for his handling of the Ott investigation amid complaints of elder abuse.

Those complaints were filed a year ago, and Gill’s office has still not completed an investigation or made any findings, said Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Jake Parkinson.

But Salt Lake County Democratic Party Chairman Quang Dang argued that “it is tragic and ironic they are politicizing Mr. Ott’s death. He served the county well to the best of his ability for as long as he was able, and now they are making it a political event before he has even had his funeral.”

Dang also pointed out that the Republican Party nominated Ott in 2014 to be its candidate, even though recent testimony revealed that the recorder had received an initial diagnosis of possible dementia in 2013.

Gill said Monday the investigation is ongoing and his office will release the findings once it completes the probe. He noted that the testimony about Ott’s earlier diagnosis emerged only recently in guardianship hearings.

Parkinson maintains Gill’s office has been sitting on the investigation for a year despite growing concerns that Ott was being taken advantage of by top aides who allegedly hid his condition to keep their jobs.

Complaints were filed with Gill’s office and the Utah attorney general’s office in September 2016 by Republican activist Jeremy Roberts and Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, asking for an investigation into possible elder abuse.

Parkinson said Gill asked the attorney general’s office, led by Republican Sean Reyes, to let his office take the case and has done little since.

“Gary Ott had all the political connections in the world,” Parkinson said. “If he wasn’t able to get the protection he needed from Sim Gill, what chance does the average citizen have of being protected by the D.A.’s office.”

Roberts said that, even though he was a complainant, Gill’s office never interviewed him. He and Parkinson expressed concern that Ott’s assets might have been in jeopardy while those accused of abuse still had control over him and his finances.

Parkinson noted that Ott missed several mortgage payments on his house. Yet those who controlled his finances were allowed to continue to do so.

While Republicans and Democrats duke it out on the political stage, I would offer another culprit in this sad episode: The closed caucus/convention system the Republican Party has clung to so desperately in the wake of a 2014 compromise bill to allow two paths to the primary ballot: convention delegate votes and signature gathering.

It was that closed system that allowed Ott to slide through the process, being nominated by the delegates and winning re-election while being hidden from public view.

Then-Democratic candidate Mary Bishop complained at the time that she seemed to be running against a phantom candidate. Ott didn’t show up at debates or joint appearances. He was always represented by Dole or Sanone as surrogates.

While Ott’s re-election was a cinch after gaining the Republican nod because of the nature of Utah’s lopsided politics, it may have been harder for him to go through the nominating process with his condition undetected had he faced a wider GOP base than the delegates at the convention.

And now, Dang said, they are trying to deflect the blame to a Democrat.