The Utah Transit Authority took steps Wednesday that it hopes may bring an early end to special federal monitoring of the agency, which was part of a deal in 2017 to avoid federal prosecution.
The UTA Board voted to restructure a contract with the federally approved monitor — the San Francisco law firm of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass — to speed evaluation of some key areas of promised reforms.
It approved a $214,600 contract change that “allows them to complete monitoring of UTA in a shorter timeline so you can go the U.S. Attorney’s Office to at least possibly ask for early termination,” said David Wilkins, an assistant Utah attorney general assigned to provide legal work for UTA.
It also may allow the U.S. attorney to focus on fewer areas if the monitoring continues, Wilkins said. UTA pays for the monitoring.
The deal with prosecutors called for three years of federal monitoring and was supposed to begin quickly by July 3, 2017. However, disagreements over possible monitors and the scope of work led to a long delay, and a contract was finally approved in August 2018.
“UTA began to put in significant structural reforms about a year before the monitorship actually began,” Wilkins said. With that head start, “there have been rather significant improvements across the board.”
The monitor gave a report on its first year of work in August and said that UTA — as recently restructured by the Legislature — has largely erased problems that led to past scandals over high executive pay, extensive international travel, sweetheart deals with developers and a lack of transparency.
But it raised concerns that confusing powers given to the UTA Advisory Council of local government officials could reignite problems. And the report expressed worries that an exodus of in-house attorneys drained the agency of key institutional knowledge and displaced a key reformer at the agency.
“Not that more work can’t be done, but we believe progress has been made,” Rees Morgan with Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass said at the time. “We were very impressed with the current UTA personnel.... They all seem to care very much about establishing ethical management.”
The report said UTA now bases salaries for executives on surveys of people with similar positions in government, transit and nonprofit agencies — but not businesses. It said that largely eliminates problems that, for example, gave former UTA chief Mike Allegra compensation of $402,187 in 2013, including a $30,000 bonus.
Also, the monitor’s recent report said reforms such as requiring approval in a public meeting for any international travel have nearly eliminated such trips.
In comparison, former UTA CEO John Inglish in 2.5 years ending in 2012 went to Belgium, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Spain (twice), Switzerland, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and 17 U.S. cities. He averaged 1.6 out-of-state trips a month. Others also traveled extensively.
The report also noted that UTA last year pulled back many contracts for problematic “transit-oriented developments,” and created a new process with more checks and balances to award contracts and choose projects based on merit instead of whatever officials preferred.
Past problems with such developments included prepaying a developer $10 million to construct a parking garage that he never built, giving what the state found were too-generous contracts to developers who had ties to old board members, and some former board members seeking to invest in projects they had voted to approve.