UTA takes step to publicly disclose its board’s conflict-of-interest forms

Executive committee recommends transparency to ‘strengthen the faith and confidence of the people.’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jerry Benson addresses the board before being sworn in as the new president/CEO of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), Wednesday August 31, 2016.

The Utah Transit Authority took a first step Monday toward always making public what have been mostly confidential, newly required conflict-of-interest forms for its board members.

That comes after The Salt Lake Tribune fought to obtain the first such forms through an open-records request. UTA denied the request initially, then negotiated release of most of the forms when the newspaper appealed to the State Records Committee.

State law has long required board members to fill out a basic public statement each year listing any potential conflicts of interest that they may have.

Two years ago as UTA was trying to improve its reputation after some scandals, it went a step further to require more detailed information about board members’ finances, business dealings, assets, outside positions and gifts, including travel.

The agency initially planned to keep the disclosures confidential — promising board members and employees as much on the forms — and to make them available only to compliance officers for internal review.

But on Monday, the Executive Committee of the UTA Board recommended that the full board require that all information on the forms be made public “to promote the public interest and strengthen the faith and confidence of the people.”

The Tribune, when it recently obtained copies of the reports through a mediated settlement, found they contained little data.

Most members listed no assets or liabilities — because they were not required to list such things as their personal cars or homes, nor any loans on them.

Some members were a bit vague with the assets that they did list.

For example, board members — including Dannie McConkie, Greg Bell and Necia Christensen — listed owning “rental homes,” but did not include on the forms exact addresses that could help identify whether they might benefit from the location of any UTA transit services.

When UTA Police Chief Fred Ross on his similar disclosure form listed that he owned a “family business” and a “rental home,” documents showed that UTA compliance officers requested more detailed information for their review.

Some board members listed extensive information about what stocks they hold, while others others said simply that they owned stocks without listing them.

One member, Lindon Mayor Jeff Acerson, did disclose that he had bought and owns nearly $90,000 worth of bonds that had been issued by UTA.

Another member, North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, disclosed that his father is a FrontRunner train operator. That had been known publicly because some members earlier this year tried to block his appointment because of it. The state auditor later ruled it violated no rules as long as Taylor does not vote on actions that directly affect his father.

Jayme Blakesley, UTA general counsel, told the executive committee Monday that reporting required by the agency “goes beyond what is required by state law. It goes beyond what similarly situated entities do. The only organizations within the state that come close to this level of disclosure would be those required by legislators.”

The forms were initially approved after some past controversies and scandals that were fueled in part by some lax disclosure rules.

For example, a 2010 legislative audit said then-UTA Board member Terry Diehl, a developer, might have broken state law by possibly misusing official information to buy rights to develop land near a potential FrontRunner train station before the general public knew where it might be located.

The audit said Diehl complied with somewhat weak disclosure rules at the time and continued voting on matters related to that station, but would have been in violation of stronger rules adopted later.

Diehl denied any wrongdoing. But the next year, he resigned from the board under pressure from its members. On Monday, a federal judge dismissed the last of what had once been 14 felony counts against Diehl that stemmed from allegations that he lied about or hid assets as part of a 2012 bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, The Tribune reported on a relationship that former UTA Chairman Greg Hughes, now the Utah House speaker, did not disclose when he was with the agency.

He and former Utah House Majority Leader Kevin Garn formed a company together in 2011 seeking to build a downtown Salt Lake City apartment building. Five months later, a separate Garn company won UTA contracts for several transit-oriented developments.

Hughes said disclosure of his business with Garn wasn’t required because it was a preliminary step in a project that never got off the ground. Besides, Hughes said he didn’t know that Garn was a partner in Thackeray Garn, which won the UTA contracts, even though the board he led approves such contracts and receives updates on them.

Also in another incident related to disclosures, controversy erupted in 2015 when several then-current and former UTA officials went to Switzerland in a trip funded by outside sources organized by Hughes, after he left the board.

The trip included meeting with a Swiss-based company bidding to use some unused space in a UTA FrontRunner maintenance facility — forcing the agency to restart the bidding process once that unauthorized meeting was discovered. The company ultimately won the bid.

Board members involved in the trip resigned, and UTA adopted policies to require disclosure of transit-related trips funded by outside sources.