Kerry Gibson’s time over Utah Agriculture Dept. marked by employee turmoil and spending increases

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Agriculture Commissioner Kerry Gibson speaks during a 1st Congressional District Republican debate at KUED, Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

The following story was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

During Kerry Gibson’s nine months as commissioner over Utah’s Department of Agriculture and Food, staff shake-ups took a toll on morale, travel spending went up and financial audits flagged a spike in procedural errors.

More recently, state Auditor John Dougall launched an investigation into various irregularities at UDAF in response to whistleblower complaints.

“We’re looking at programs and how they operate to make sure they’re following certain rules and are operating effectively,” Dougall said. “The whistleblower complaints go to certain individuals, but I can’t really speak to that right now.” That probe is expected to conclude sometime this summer.

Gibson, who before his stint at the agriculture department was a Weber County commissioner and a state legislator, is now in a tough four-way primary battle for the Republican nomination in Utah’s 1st Congressional District.

The June 30 runoff will pick one nominee from among Gibson, Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson and business executive Blake Moore.

Gibson did not respond to many questions emailed to him at his request, saying he had to route the queries “through the proper channels to see what I can and cannot answer because I am no longer employed at UDAF.”

But former employees had plenty to say.

They said employee morale took a nosedive during Gibson’s administration, from mid-April 2019 to mid-January 2020 when he resigned to run for Congress.

Gibson declined to discuss specific employee complaints from his time running the agency other than to say that “When a new leader comes into an organization, it is very common to have some personnel changes.”

Employee angst

Ryan Mortenson joined UDAF as a rural marketing specialist in November 2018 under former Commissioner LuAnn Adams. When Gibson took Adams’ place about five months later, Mortenson soon found his job in jeopardy.

But Mortenson said he never actually had a conversation with Gibson. Natalie Callahan — Gibson’s new director of operations and agriculture programs — handled the task of questioning employees about their value to the department.

Callahan, along with Sasha Seegmiller Clark, run the Dicio Group, a Salt Lake City-based public relations firm that caters to government entities, conservative political candidates and local businesses. In addition to Callahan, Gibson also hired Clark as public information officer.

About a month after Gibson took over, Mortenson began to see that his former work experience with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and master’s degree in agricultural economics meant little to his new overseers. And he and his wife were expecting their second child in August.

“I got a phone call from Natalie asking to meet in the commissioner’s office,” Mortenson said.

During that meeting, Mortenson said Callahan asked what he did. So he rattled off a laundry list that included marketing reports, outreach, connecting growers and serving as the liaison between state and federal programs. He also described projects he had in the works. But none of that mattered.

“She said we’re taking the division in a different direction,” Mortenson said, “and told me they would keep me on until August and then let me go after my child was born.”

When he tried to defend himself further, “she started making up stuff,” Mortenson said. “She said my performance was poor, that I had a negative demeanor, that I was rude.”

Mortenson was allowed to stay on and work half his time in his current position and the other half in the new cannabis division. Eventually he transitioned into full-time capacity in the cannabis division, where his boss managed to keep him beyond August.

But after receiving a cut in pay, Mortenson decided it was time to leave, and moved his family out of state for another job opportunity.

But he concluded that Gibson’s “different direction” for the department was self-serving: “He used his position as commissioner as a shadow campaign opportunity to use taxpayer dollars to get his face out in the public and on the news.”

By text message Callahan responded to say that Gibson’s “new direction” was based on requests from farmers and ranchers.

“Many of our industry partners felt like the department had become a symbol of red tape, a government bureaucracy that was not serving the folks that needed them,” Callahan says. Responding to the industry required a “significant shift in mindset, and we had a lot to sort through when we started.”

Unhappy birthday

For Nina Mendoza, who started as an intern and worked her way into a full-time position with benefits as marketing specialist under former Commissioner Adams, her exit from the department happened more abruptly.

“I was working on our budget for fiscal year 2020 and rolling out our new studies and new programs we wanted to implement,” Mendoza said. However, she said she never had one conversation with Callahan about her job duties.

Mendoza remembers co-workers walking on eggshells as terminations continued to happen. “Everybody wondered who’s next,” she said.

As far as Mendoza could surmise, the new administration planned to replace her marketing team with staff tasked with doing “outreach” aimed at getting Gibson’s name and face out in front of the public.

That didn’t sit right with Mendoza, whose work at UDAF centered on promoting the Utah’s Own brand campaign. The message Mendoza received during her meeting with Callahan was “basically we have a vision — and you don’t fit our vision.”

It wasn’t the first time the Dicio partners had been questioned about focusing more on making their bosses look good than on promoting the agency mission.

A Standard Examiner story from 2017 reported that when Dicio was hired for public relations work by the Weber County Commission on which Gibson sat, the contract said the firm would “look for ways to highlight how each commissioner has cut costs and saved taxpayer money” and “highlight boards the commissioners serve on, the commissioners’ work at the Legislature and with the federal delegation, and positive interactions between commissioners.”

Still in her first year as a full-time employee, Mendoza’s probationary status meant she could be terminated at any time. But her final day at UDAF stung a bit more because it landed on her birthday.

“It wasn’t the end of a pay period … I feel like it was so intentional,” Mendoza said.

Callahan says that she in fact loved working with UDAF employees, and that Gibson encouraged camaraderie among all departments, that helped them in their mission of serving Utah’s ranchers and farmers.

“Kerry understood what our industry partners were facing and was tireless in his efforts to serve them,” she said.

Fuzzy finances

Routine quarterly financial audits from 2017 to 2020 showed just five procedural errors under previous director Adams compared to 41 under Gibson. So the state finance division recommended they train employees to follow the rules.

For example, policy dictated that expenditures over $5,000 go through the state purchasing division. But in June 2019 under Gibson, $15,000 was paid to KIRMAG Inc. for video material that would air on the TV program The County Seat. The 22-minute episode, called “One on One with Kerry Gibson,” featured his dairy farm in western Weber County.

Under the last two years of Adams’ administration, ending in April 2019, KIRMAG’s services were routinely tapped in accordance with the state’s purchasing policy — with one exception. In June 2018, her office circumvented the state’s procurement process and paid KIRMAG $17,538.52.

Jenny Bathemess, former financial manager for the Department of Agriculture under Adams and Gibson, said her job included making sure employees followed established state policies and procedures.

That often meant asking them to provide missing documentation or to fill out a form that could justify the exception.

“My role was to teach — so we could stay out of hot water,” Bathemess said.

But under Gibson, she said those tasks got tougher to accomplish. “It was a constant battle … there was never any response, just hostility.”

Bathemess quit her job in October 2019 because she said she was miserable.

“When the new commissioner came in, the environment got a wee bit hostile,” Bathemess said. “They didn’t want to be watched — and it was my job to watch.”

Questionable travel

Many of the exceptions noted in Gibson’s quarterly audits stemmed from travel reimbursements and lack of proper documentation for purchasing card expenses.

But one out-of-state excursion in particular raised eyebrows. In July 2019, Gibson and others traveled to Kauai, Hawaii, for the annual meetings of the Western Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

A Facebook post from July 26 shows that Callahan and at least one of her sisters made that trip.

Out-of-state travel records on the state’s transparency website (transparent.utah.gov) indicate $18,295.53 spent in Fiscal Year 2019-2020 compared to $11,458.44 the year before under Adams, a 60% increase. Transportation, lodging and meal expenses charged to Gibson’s office around that time totaled $3,827.

Cannabis conflicts

During Gibson’s tenure, the agriculture department awarded medical cannabis licenses for cultivation and pharmacy operations. That selection process drew fire for a few reasons, one an allegation of inappropriate interactions between the committee that reviewed and scored bids and a company that submitted bids for both types of licenses.

Callahan sat on that evaluation committee, and during the 30-day blackout period after 81 cultivation bids had been submitted, a photo of her with Gibson and Mike Standlee — owner of True North of Utah — surfaced on UDAF’s Twitter feed.

True North won a growers and a pharmacy license and competitors protested, with Tintic United Bioscience LLC alleging a violation of the blackout period. "It's suspicious and suggests favoritism," Tintic CEO Michael "Caddy" Cadwell said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

And a January 2020 Herald Journal News story identifies Sasha Clark — Callahan’s Dicio Group partner and then UDAF coworker — as spokesperson for True North of Utah.

According to campaign finance reports, Standlee contributed $8,400 to Gibson’s congressional campaign in March 2020.

Clark says that she was not an “official” spokesperson for True North, though she had assisted the company to secure news coverage. She says her UDAF work at the same time involved being a spokeswoman, branding and social media work.

“We worked extremely hard to increase positive coverage across multiple platforms for an industry which has been struggling for generations,” Clark said via text message.

While Clark’s Dicio partner, Callahan, was also involved in the department’s cannabis policy, she said her vote on the selection committee carried no more weight than the other board members.

Gibson would not respond to many questions but did speak generally about the cannabis program, taking pride in his efforts as well as crediting the state purchasing division and health department for having it well underway when he arrived.

“The program is up and running and doing very well,” Gibson said.

Editor’s note: Reporter Cathy McKitrick is challenging Gibson in a Utah Supreme Court case in an attempt to obtain records from a closed Ogden Police Department investigation into allegations about him when he was a Weber County commissioner.