The Unified Fire Authority determined Tuesday that it won’t seek to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds that state auditors concluded last year were misused by top administrators.
That audit and a 196-page investigative report from the Utah attorney general’s office found that former Chief Michael Jensen and Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott 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 boards that oversee the authority contend that Jensen “clearly abused his role” and manipulated the UFA and Unified Fire Service Area boards for personal gain.
But they ultimately determined that “the cost to recover the misappropriated funds would be an additional cost to the public’s money with small chance of success as reflected by the attorney general’s decision to not prosecute,” and that a past separation agreement the board had signed with Jensen had tied their hands, according to a joint statement from the boards.
A more-than-yearlong investigation by the Utah attorney general’s office, released in September, confirmed and built upon the auditor’s findings but ended with no criminal charges after prosecutors concluded they were unlikely to win a conviction.
That means a civil lawsuit would likely have been the last chance to go after $370,000 in public funds the audit concluded Jensen and Scott had improperly received.
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 and two other top administrators received more than a combined $400,000 in bonuses, or “incentive pay,” between 2011 and 2015.
The UFA operates fire and emergency services throughout most of Salt Lake County under contracts 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 the UFA.
The move from the boards not to pursue legal action came after a more-than-hourlong closed meeting with legal counsel on Tuesday. It was a “challenging decision,” said Millcreek Mayor and UFA Board Chairman Jeff Silvestrini.
“We made this decision with a degree of resignation,” he said. “It’s not that I’m pleased about it. We’re resigned to it. And we all pledge to do better in the future.”
The board of directors took responsibility “for the poor choice in hiring and continuing to employ Jensen as the fire chief and for the loss of public funds that occurred as a result of his hiring” in its statement but promised that the agency had made changes to its policies and procedures to prevent something similar from happening in the future.
Chief Dan Petersen, who took over the agency in January 2017, has 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 in an effort to address the culture and practices at the UFA.
“Today, the UFA has an effective fire chief/CEO, a detailed transparent financial budget, a strategic plan, and an engaged, healthy ‘trust but verify’ culture on the board of directors,” the statement concludes.
Silvestrini told The Salt Lake Tribune that he hopes the decision represents the “final page” in a saga that has long wrapped the agency in turmoil.
“The other thing that was a factor in our decisions was just the need for closure and really whether the whole department wanted to rip this band-aid off again,” he said.
But the board may not be able to forget its past just yet. Five firefighters sued the UFA, Jensen and Scott last month for allegedly hiring less-qualified family members of command staff instead of them in 2011. They’re seeking seniority rights, payment for lost back pay and retirement benefits, and an order prohibiting the UFA from treating applicants or employees more favorably than others based on familial ties.
And Jensen is still involved in politics, serving as a Salt Lake County councilman and a board member for the Inland Port Authority. The former fire chief has faced calls for his resignation from that board in the weeks after the release of the report from the attorney general’s office — a sentiment former UFA board chairman and Riverton City Councilman Sheldon Stewart echoed after the meeting Tuesday.
“Really, personally, I wish for the sake of the UFA … I wish I could have seen it start with someone other than Chief Jensen,” Stewart said, adding: “I think he maybe needs to consider a different career.”