Unified Fire Authority wants to talk to an attorney about suing to recover money misused by its former leaders

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Fire Chief Dan Petersen for Unified Fire Authority has made changes to correct past problems before he took over in January 2017. During an interview on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, Petersen commented on a 196-page investigative report by the Utah Attorney General's Office that illuminated a pattern of past administrative abuse of public positions for personal benefit and yearly bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The board overseeing the Unified Fire Authority voted Tuesday to hire outside legal counsel to advise it on whether to attempt recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds that state auditors last year concluded were misused by top administrators.

The money the board would seek to recover includes at least $370,000 in public funds the audit concluded former chief and current Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen and ex-Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott had improperly received.

“Our board takes very seriously the fact that these funds, which we believe were misappropriated funds, are public funds,” said Millcreek Mayor and UFA board member Jeff Silvestrini. “We believe the board was misled and/or circumvented with respect to some of these expenditures, and as a board we don’t believe that we can accept that type of conduct.”

The Unified Fire Authority operates fire and emergency services throughout most of Salt Lake County under contract with individual cities. The Unified Fire Service Area is a separate but related taxing district made up of municipalities that levy property taxes to build fire stations operated by UFA. The service area board is also seeking legal advice on a potential suit.

Though a decision was expected Tuesday, the board decided after a closed session to seek legal advice before going forward with litigation against Jensen, Scott and perhaps also former Chief Legal Officer Karl Hendrickson and former Chief Financial Officer Shirley Perkins.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The board directed its legal team and staff to review all the available information about the case to decide how to proceed civilly at its meeting last month. A civil lawsuit would likely be the only way to go after that money because a more-than-yearlong investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office, released last month, ended with no criminal charges.

The state audit and the 196-page investigative report from the Attorney General’s Office found the agency’s top administrators had received exorbitant bonuses, been reimbursed for personal vacations attached to official travel, purchased electronic equipment for personal use and hired close family members outside UFA rules.

The payouts included sizable severance checks to the two — $93,000 to Jensen and $42,000 to Scott — even though they resigned in 2016 under a cloud of suspicion. Additionally, Jensen, Scott, Perkins and Hendrickson received more than a combined $400,000 in bonuses, or “incentive pay,” between 2011 and 2015.

Chief Dan Peterson, who took over the agency in January 2017, has since eliminated the agency’s bonus program altogether, and the board has worked through about 100 of the 126 recommendations included in the state auditor’s report to address the culture and practices at UFA.

Silvestrini said he expects the board will make a decision about whether to move forward with a lawsuit at its November meeting.