Opponents of Spencer Cox wait for audit of no-bid contracts

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) TestUtah COVID-19 testing at the 800 North location in Orem, Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

In the background of this year’s governor’s race, State Auditor John Dougall has been quietly parsing through more than $80 million in state spending in the early days of the pandemic, a period when officials dispensed with normal rules meant to safeguard against corruption and favoritism.

Candidates have demanded more transparency surrounding the no-bid contracts and purchase orders — some of which evolved into the cornerstone initiatives of Utah’s COVID-19 response.

They asked why tech companies with no experience in lab testing landed deals to run TestUtah, an initiative that has been dogged by questions over its accuracy. And they challenged their rival, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, to account for some of these decisions and his role in making them.

The political hopefuls have eagerly waited for Dougall’s audit. But more than four months have passed, Cox won the June primary election, and there’s still no sign of when the report might surface and what it will reveal.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who narrowly lost to Cox and for a time considered running as a write-in, said he wishes Dougall would “provide a smoke signal or something” to let people know where the inquiry stands.

“Just a signal to the marketplace would be nice,” Huntsman said in a podcast launched last week, though it was recorded before he announced his decision against a write-in campaign. “But it’s been complete radio silence.”

Chris Peterson, the Democrat who’s facing Cox in the race to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, said he believes Dougall should release the audit before general election ballots are mailed in mid-October.

“I am concerned that some of the funds in the coronavirus crisis do not appear to have been subject to appropriate stewardship,” he said in an interview. “And it’s critical that we have an auditor who will act as an independent set of eyes for the public, checking and balancing the books for our state government.”

Peterson compared the audit to a performance review and said, like ordinary Utahns, Cox should not expect a promotion before the report is finalized and presented to the boss. “In this case,” he said, “the people of Utah.”

In a phone interview, Dougall said the governor’s race is not a factor in when he’ll finish the audit and when he’ll release it. His staffers have to block out the external pressures, he said, so they can “put our heads down and just go to work.”

Dougall said a simple audit can take about two months, while a complicated one can require more than a year. This investigation into emergency purchasing during the early days of COVID-19 is moderately complex, he said, adding that he doesn’t have an estimated time for completion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah State Auditor John Dougall, pictured at the Utah Capitol, Thursday, May 23, 2019.

A spokeswoman for the governor said speculation about impropriety in the COVID-19 contracting shows “a shocking lack of understanding of the basic processes of governing during an emergency.” In the first wave of the pandemic, officials said they had to circumvent standard procurement processes to ramp up initiatives quickly and compete in the global rush for critical supplies.

“Nothing about the last seven months has been ’regular’ for any of us, but Utah’s response has been ethical, measured, and in keeping with standard emergency practices,” spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt wrote in an email. “Consequently, we have the lowest reported unemployment and mortality rates in the nation.”

The executive branch has been transparent with legislators and other state officials about the spending, Lehnardt noted, and created a public-facing portal with information about all the pandemic purchases.

She said the governor’s office has stayed in close communication with Dougall’s team and has been responsive to all requests for information. Herbert’s administration hasn’t yet had the chance to review Dougall’s findings — an opportunity always afforded to subjects of an audit before the report goes public — but they are confident the conclusions will be “both constructive and affirming,” she wrote.

“To that end,” Lehnardt continued, “audits should neither be influenced by nor influence politics.”

But Huntsman said the audit was on his mind as he weighed a write-in campaign.

Generally, he believes candidates should play by the rules of a primary and accept the outcome, he said during the podcast interview. But evidence of impropriety or irregularities in the Herbert administration’s handling of COVID-19 could precipitate a “crisis of legitimacy around governing” and create the need for another choice besides Cox, he argued.

“You would feel compelled to say, ‘OK, the people do deserve an alternative because this person might not make it to the finish line for whatever reason,’” he said on the podcast hosted by Jeff Burningham, who also ran in the Republican race for governor. “If there was a scenario that played out like that, then … you’d give a [write-in] serious consideration.”

However, facing an Aug. 31 filing deadline, Huntsman had to make his decision without knowing what auditors have found. On Aug. 28, he announced on social media that he wouldn’t pursue a write-in campaign, although he did write that “if there was corruption, it should never die in darkness, and power should never silence truth.”

During the podcast interview, Huntsman and Burningham puzzled at the length of time the Dougall audit has taken.

“It’s the strangest thing in the world,” Huntsman said.

The former governor continued by conjecturing that the duration of the review indicates that Dougall has found something “complicated and difficult to unravel.”

Burningham said in a phone interview that he supports Dougall’s assertion that audits can’t be rushed, but he does find it noteworthy that this particular review has taken so long.

“I wonder what’s there,” he said. “It will be interesting to see.”

Cox said in a statement that he appreciated Huntsman’s call for unity in announcing he wouldn’t run a write-in campaign. He acknowledged that the state’s early response to the pandemic wasn’t perfect but said Utah is leading the nation in many aspects of its recovery from the coronavirus.

“There is more work to be done to fight this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” he said, “and I would welcome Ambassador Huntsman’s partnership with us in these efforts.”

Alecia Williams, who joined a group to “draft” Huntsman as a write-in candidate, said the audit played a major role as those supporters tried to persuade the former governor to reenter the contest.

“If he jumped in without some strong compelling reason, it would look self-serving,” she said. “But the audit was a huge question mark, not only for our group but for Jon.”

Huntsman’s supporters asked Dougall whether he’d unearthed any information that might give them reason to pursue a write-in effort, Williams said. But the auditor would say only that “whatever’s being talked about in the news, I’m seeing the same thing,” she said.

That wasn’t enough to push Huntsman back into the race, she said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and former Gov. Jon Hunstman, right.

She’s frustrated, however, that so many questions remain unanswered heading into the fall campaign season. For one thing, she said, she’s troubled by the campaign contributions made by some of the companies that landed COVID-19 contracts with the state.

“Utahns are in trouble if that audit comes out and there was questionable decision-making,” she said. “What a shame that Utah doesn’t have an alternative other than the Democratic nominee.”

Domo, an American Fork company, signed a $2 million contract to develop a virtual dashboard that officials could use to track case counts, deaths and other data. The tech firm donated $15,000 to Herbert’s political action committee in 2017 and 2018.

And in 2017, Qualtrics, a company involved in the TestUtah initiative, chipped in $25,000 to Herbert’s PAC. Cox’s opponents note that the governor’s political action committee, in turn, transferred $50,000 to Cox’s reelection campaign last year.

There is no direct evidence that Herbert’s PAC acted as a pass-through and the donations from the tech companies were intended for Cox, who hadn’t even launched his gubernatorial campaign when Domo and Qualtrics made the contributions. It is also not clear if these donations are part of Dougall’s audit.

Editor’s note Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.