Former top UTA official sues for $300K in canceled bonuses. Agency countersues alleging fraud.

(Photo courtesy of UTA) Bruce Jones, former general counsel of the Utah Transit Authority.

The Utah Transit Authority’s former general counsel is suing the agency for $300,000 in deferred bonuses and benefits that leaders had voided as “unconscionably high.”

And UTA is counter-suing Bruce Jones alleging “fraud and legal malpractice." Both lawsuits were filed Saturday in 3rd District Court.

Jones contends in his lawsuit that the money was part of deals negotiated to keep his base salary lower in exchange for deferred payments when he retired, and says they are legal and binding.

Jones — who also is the past chairman of the Salt Lake County Bar Association and the Salt Lake County Republican Party, and a former Cottonwood Heights City Council member — also asserts that UTA has refused to participate in arbitration as required by the contracts.

UTA’s lawsuit contends Jones represented “both himself and UTA in salary negotiations” on contracts that gave him the generous benefits, which “were never approved by the [UTA] board and the agreement did not have the requisite two signatures.”

It adds, “When UTA discovered Jones’s self-dealing and improprieties,” it immediately voided the payments. “Not only was the bonus grossly disproportional to the work performed, but UTA viewed the payment of a bonus as unwarranted and unanticipated.”

It also contends that Jones “engaged lawyer Allen Young to pose as an ‘arbitrator’ for the dispute” improperly, and UTA wants the court to declare void a partial ruling he issued supporting Jones.

All that comes after the agency in 2017 — in the wake of an immunity deal where UTA agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating transit officials — publicly said it canceled a $474,000 deferred bonus for Jones that it found to be “unconscionably high.”

At that time, Jayme Blakesley — then-UTA general counsel, who had replaced Jones — said UTA leaders asked him to review contracts with some top UTA officials after a legislative audit blasted their high pay and bonuses.

He said he was stunned to find they were giving Jones $474,646 in deferred payments. “I about fell out of my chair,” he said. Jones’ lawsuit says some of the money was paid to him in installments before the contract was voided, and he seeks $300,000 now plus attorneys fees.

Blakesley said in 2017 that Jones’ big bonus “was for selecting five transit-oriented-development projects — not completing them — picking them.” Such projects aim to develop offices, apartments and retail around rail stations to attract more riders.

The projects Jones launched had problems. State audits, for example, criticized several sweetheart deals with developers and how many never brought any return for UTA’s investment. Blakesley said UTA tried to cancel the 12 deals Jones started, but five had proceeded too far or had legal complications that prevented cancellation.

Blakesley said in 2017 that contracts with Jones "were not executed properly. There were defects in the procedures followed to implement the contracts. So the board, after hearing that, was able to take action and void the Jones contract."

Jones contends in his lawsuit now that the contracts were legal and enacted in the same way as most other UTA contracts for key executives. He asked the court to either order UTA to proceed with arbitration as called for in contracts, or to allow a trial by jury to decide the matter.

It says that when Jones was hired — and when he was later given additional responsibilities — UTA officials “wanted to try to keep base salaries low but could offer incentives in the form of performance bonuses and/or retirement benefits.”

He was initially paid $150,000, which was raised to $189,000 for 2007 and $201,500 in 2008 — lower than positions it said Jones had been considering “with major law firms in Salt Lake City, in the salary range between $350,000 and $400,000, not including any benefits.”

The lawsuit says when Jones’ responsibilities were expanded in 2010 to oversee governmental relations, he was not given a raise — but negotiated an additional deferred incentive bonus instead with the UTA board chairman.

UTA no longer has its own general counsel. Because of scandals and controversy in recent years, reforms ordered by the Legislature included requiring the agency now to use the Utah attorney general’s office for legal representation.