Federal authorities say Rep. Phil Lyman has a ‘heightened moral obligation’ to pay off his debts from a 2015 conviction now that he’s on the state’s payroll

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, during floor time in the Utah House of Representatives, Feb. 22, 2019.

Now that he’s collecting a paycheck from state taxpayers as a member of the Utah House of Representatives, federal authorities want a court to force Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, to increase by fivefold his monthly restitution payment to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Lyman, a former San Juan County commissioner, was convicted in 2015 of a misdemeanor for leading a ride onto public lands that were closed to protect ancient American Indian dwellings. He was ordered to pay $95,955.61 in damages, which the court has allowed him to pay off in $100 monthly installments.

At that rate, nearly three-quarters of the money he owes would remain unpaid by the time his debt judgment expires in April 2036. But federal officials believe he can and should be required to pay $500 a month — and that he has a “heightened moral obligation” to do so now that he draws a state salary.

“Although the direct payee of Lyman’s restitution is BLM, ultimately, his victims are the taxpayers who provided the public funds that were spent to assess and repair the damage caused by Lyman’s Recapture Canyon protest ride,” say documents filed in U.S. District Court last week. “Lyman receives income from the people to whom he owes restitution, and it would be an injustice to the public if Lyman were to fail to repay his debt.”

At an increased rate of $500 per month, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office is advocating for, Lyman’s debts would be paid off about two years before his court judgment expires.

“The U.S. Department of Justice is apparently as bad at math as they are at justice,” Lyman said in a written statement to The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. “Their motion is nothing but thinly veiled defamation by a U.S. attorney with a political ax to grind. This is an issue that, with minimal investigation, would show the utter vindictiveness of this motion.”

The attorney’s office said it took into consideration Lyman’s financial resources and assets, projected earnings, other income and financial obligations to make its argument. His gross monthly income has been redacted from the court documents, but the federal officials state that “Lyman could easily afford to pay $500 per month towards restitution” and perhaps even more than that amount.

But although the court argues that Lyman’s “economic circumstances improved” once he was elected to the state Legislature, his new salary is actually a fairly substantial pay cut compared to his job as a county commissioner.

State lawmakers receive a daily compensation rate of $285, and Lyman received a lump sum payment of $12,284 before the start of the session in January, the court documents state — a far cry from the $54,747 he earned as a county commissioner in 2017, according to the state’s government transparency website. Data for 2018 is not yet available.

“Having been timely with my payments while taking a $25K pay cut to be a legislator, the U.S. attorney’s office needs an investigation as to why they continue to harass me,” Lyman concluded in his statement. “I am pursuing the legal course to demand that investigation.”

At the time of Lyman’s sentencing, the court initially planned to charge him $500 per month, but there was a question about whether his co-defendant, Monte Jerome Wells, could afford that rate. In response, the court reduced the payment for both to a minimum of $100.

Since that time, federal officials have tried to get Lyman to pay more than the minimum toward his debts, to no avail, the legal documents state. And that’s another reason why they want the court to force him to do so.

“[Lyman] has made it very clear, through his interactions with Probation and with [the United States Attorney’s Office Financial Litigation Unit], that he will not pay a penny more than what the Court orders," the documents state.

In an email sent to Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison Moon in November 2017, Lyman said of his debt that he would “very much like to pay it off and put it behind me.”

“I have contacted a realtor and told him that I would like to list all of my property,” he wrote in the email, a redacted copy of which was included in the court documents. “We started that process a couple of months ago and hopefully he will have them all listed soon. … I am hopeful that they will generate enough to pay the BLM.”

Court documents say Lyman has not listed any of his property for sale to date.

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