UTA finally hiring outside monitor to oversee reforms — 15 months after original deadline set by federal prosecutors

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Jerry Benson, then the UTA CEO and president, speaks as Utah Transit Authority officials hold a news conference to discuss an ongoing federal investigation and reforms they have enacted, at UTA headquarters in Salt Lake City, Tuesday April 4, 2017.

As part of a deal to avoid federal prosecution, the Utah Transit Authority agreed nearly 17 months ago to hire an outside monitor to ensure the agency lives up to promised reforms — and to hire the overseer quickly, by July 3, 2017.

On Wednesday, the UTA Board finally approved hiring that long-overdue monitor — and blamed delays on the office of the U.S. Attorney for Utah. That office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported and raised questions about the lack of the agreed-to monitor last March. Five months later, the deal is finally approved.

“We met all of our required deadlines,” said Andrea Packer, UTA communications director.

Steve Meyer, UTA interim executive director, explained that federal officials rejected the first monitor the agency proposed.

“We had to be in agreement,” he said. “So we then had some better discussions, and understood their scope, what they were trying to accomplish. And we went out for a second procurement.”

Steve Meyer

The board on Wednesday approved hiring the San Francisco law firm of Coblentz Punch Duffy & Bass for an estimated $600,000 for three years of monitoring work. Meyer said federal officials have also approved the selection.

The firm is expected to come on board effective next week. UTA documents show it received eight bids for that job.

With the long delay before the hiring, UTA Board Chairman Greg Bell told reporters that he even hoped the U.S. Attorney’s Office might decide to no longer even require an overseer.

“We have made the reforms they required,” he said. “But we have no choice,” and must comply with terms of the prosecution immunity agreement. He said he hopes the attorney’s office may shorten the three-year requirement because of the delays, to give UTA some credit, essentially, for a year of compliance.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Transit Authority Chairman Greg Bell, former Utah lieutenant governor.

Meyer said, “The U.S. Attorney’s office has agreed that we made the reforms that we need to make in the organization structure to eliminate conflicts that we had in the past. They [the new monitors] are here to verify that over time.”

Bell said he does not expect the monitor to have a full-time presence at UTA.

“They are going to check as they want to check, and audit as they want to audit,” Bell said. “They are going to look at our actions. They are going to review our financial statements, They are going to see our expenditures. They may do some spot audits.”

Meyer said it he understands the monitor would not have the ability to step in and stop any UTA activities it may dislike. “They are a monitor,” and merely monitor and report to federal officials.

UTA contract documents said the U.S. Attorney identified four areas of concern, and wanted to monitor reforms and progress in them.

They are: inadequate controls over federal funds; improper handling of buying and selling property, including inadequate oversight of transit-oriented development projects; noncompliance with ethical standards, resulting in benefits to UTA, its employees and members of the UTA Board of Trustees; and improper approval of executive bonuses.

The new contract was approved by the board without discussion, after board member Jeff Acerson, who also is the mayor of Lindon, read a statement.

Acerson said UTA has provided the U.S. attorney “with the details of organizational reforms and enhanced oversight and control measures implemented since the start of the federal investigation.”

He added UTA continues to emphasize and adhere to reforms, “and the issues experienced in the past cannot be repeated.”

In signing the nonprosecution agreement in April 2017, UTA promised to cooperate with an ongoing federal criminal investigation and waived its attorney-client privilege.

So far the only charges that have resulted were aimed at developer and former UTA board member Terry Diehl. Focused on Diehl’s profits from a land deal near a FrontRunner stop in Draper and the developer’s later bankruptcy, the case eventually fell apart. The last remaining charge against Diehl was dismissed in November.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has ordered extensive restructuring of UTA — including disbanding the current part-time UTA Board and replacing it by Nov. 1 with a full-time, three-member commission appointed by the governor.