Outside investigation finds councilwoman violated code of ethics amid heavy lobbying by a developer

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Edelweiss subdivision off of Traverse Ridge Road and SunCrest Drive in Draper on Wednesday March 6, 2019.

An outside investigation into allegations that the developer of a controversial housing project may have had an undue influence on two Draper City Council members provides a closer look at how heavily he lobbied city officials in an effort to influence the project’s outcome.

Shaun Michel of Sandy-based Michel Land has been seeking approval of Mountain Ridge Estates, a proposal to build 106 single-family homes on about 83 hillside acres the developer owns at about 2100 East Lake Bluff Drive, near the existing Suncrest subdivision on Draper’s southern end. Some residents have opposed the project, fearing it could make their homes vulnerable to landslides.

“I do not feel that the Michels [Shaun and Ollie] have done anything illegal” in their efforts to gain approval for the project, states Kristin VanOrman, the outside attorney who conducted the investigation. “However, it is my opinion that they have put numerous council members in very difficult positions.”

Shaun Michel declined comment Friday.

The developer’s attorney, Bruce Baird, said his client had "fully cooperated with the city.”

“I don’t believe they did anything inappropriate. They’re extraordinarily charitable and generous in an unsung kind of way and I don’t believe they did anything inappropriate,” Baird told The Tribune. "We appreciate working with the city and we’ll continue to do so.”

The City Council in March put the project on hold and hired the Salt Lake City-based law firm Strong & Hanni to look into accusations that council members Alan Summerhays and Michele Weeks in particular may have been swayed by favors from Michel after a council meeting devolved into angry claims and counterclaims on the matter. The two were the lone votes on the City Council in favor of the project when the council narrowly defeated it in August.

The 12-page investigative report, dated April 15 and obtained through an open records request Friday, found Weeks had committed “potential ethics violations” and that a complaint to the Draper City Ethics Commission would be warranted — “or if no such commission has been established, such a complaint could be filed with the Utah State Political Subdivisions Ethics Review Commission.”

The report did not find Summerhays had violated any ethics rules, but stated that Michel had put the councilman in an “awkward position” that ultimately constituted a conflict of interest over his connection to a Sandy rehabilitation clinic called Neuroworx, where Michel is listed as a member of the board of directors.

“It’s the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Summerhays told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday. “It’s been an experience for every one of us, because basically he’s lobbied every one of us in some way or another.”

Councilwoman Marsha Vawdry, for example, recounted to the investigator a time when Michel requested to speak with her on the Mountain Ridge project but she couldn’t meet because of a doctor’s appointment.

“He then inquired what doctor she was going to and asked if he could meet her there,” the report states.

In another instance, Michel replaced the stolen purse of a city administrator, whose name has been redacted from the report.

The employee explained that “Michel told her to ‘make sure you check the pockets,’” according to the report. “When she did, she found there was $50,” which she returned “immediately.”

One of the most concerning instances involving the developer, the report states, was his promise at a Neuroworx board meeting of a “substantial donation” to the company if the members of the board could help convince the Draper City Council to approve his project.

Vawdry, Councilwoman Tasha Lowry and Councilman Mike Green all received calls from company representatives after this incident.

Summerhays’ adult son Camryn had independently sought treatment at the clinic after suffering spinal cord damage in a December car accident — but the connection to Michel has troubled the councilman, the report states.

“He does not know if his son received special treatment,” VanOrman wrote. “Further, [Summerhays] questions whether his son’s treatment will be affected depending on how he votes on the Michel’s project. He is concerned with the situation and does not know what to do. He appropriately notified the council of his perceived conflict but does not know how to proceed in the future.”

Summerhays said he doesn’t think Michel is a “crooked man” and instead views him as inexperienced in the development world. Moving forward, he plans to avoid him and will recuse himself from any votes involving Michel, on the advice of the outside investigator.

“He put me in an awkward position and I got myself out of it by recusing myself,” Summerhays said.

A ‘perception of impropriety’

| Courtesy Draper City Councilwoman Michele Weeks is in a feud with her colleagues on the Council.

The report explored three incidents involving Weeks — only one of which it said constituted an ethical violation but all of which it concluded created a “perception of impropriety.”

The first issue was a fishing trip one of Weeks’ sons took with Michel to Strawberry Lake as the Mountain Ridge project was ongoing. The investigator said Weeks should have declined the invitation and that “regardless of the monetary value of the trip or lack thereof” it created a bad impression — particularly since it was not disclosed to the City Council.

The second instance was the involvement of Weeks’ other son with Youthlinc, a nonprofit organization that provides international service projects for local youth and of which the Michel Foundation is a substantial donor. The boy applied for a humanitarian trip to Thailand on Michel’s advice, but he was not sponsored by the family and received no financial aid for the trip, the report states.

“To be clear, I do not believe that either of Ms. Weeks’ sons received inappropriate gifts,” VanOrman stated. “However, it is the appearance of such, created by Ms. Weeks’ allowance of her sons participation as well as her failure to disclose the connection where I find fault.”

The “most concerning” of the conflict of interest issues, the report states, is a donation Michel made to Weeks’ annual Teachers Appreciation Night Event, held at the Loveland Living Aquarium. The developer donated $1,000 to the occasion — money that was funneled to the Jordan Valley Teachers Association, which assisted with the event last year.

Weeks indicated that she did not know if the Michels were contributors to the association, and the Michels told investigators that they had not made a donation specifically for the event but instead to the Jordan Valley Teachers Association generally.

VanOrman called those claims “disingenuous” as the check “clearly shows” the money was for the teacher appreciation event, which had an obvious association to Weeks.

“Further, there is no doubt that Ms. Weeks knew of the donation as she provided all of the donors’ [information] directly to the Teachers Association, they did not get any themselves,” the report states. “As such, I believe there is sufficient information to support the fact that the Michels donated substantial funds to an event founded by, closely associated with, and for all intents and purposes, was organized by Michelle Weeks. In my opinion, this clearly represents a conflict of interest.”

In response to the report, Weeks in turn questioned VanOrman’s objectivity, noting that her law firm currently works with the Utah Transit Authority, where Mayor Troy Walker sits on the advisory board. The pair ran against each other in Draper’s most recent mayoral race and the two have long had deep personal animosities against each other.

The mayor could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Weeks told The Salt Lake Tribune that she thought the investigation — the third into her conduct in recent years — was politically motivated.

"It’s very slanted and very manipulative against me,” she said.

Walker said she got her son involved in Youthlinc to help battle his depression after the unexpected loss of his father. She had approved Michel’s fishing trip with her other son for similar reasons, as a “male bonding” experience. And because that trip cost less than $50, it did not need to be disclosed to the council, she said.

Not included in the report, Weeks argued, were all the times she had requested changes to the Mountain Ridge proposal. And that and nothing else, she said, is what led to any changes in her views.

“They had already earned my vote by changing the development,” she said. “I think [the investigators] are making a mountain out of a molehill.”