Utah County clerk/auditor called employee her ‘gay democratic assistant,’ according to harassment investigation

Amelia Powers Gardner recently announced bid to fill vacant County Commission seat, and questioned whether timing of attorney’s office report was politically motivated.

(Photo courtesy of Amelia Powers Gardner) Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner has expressed a willingness to replace Tanner Ainge on the Utah County Commission.

Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner underwent workplace harassment training after calling a former employee her “gay democratic assistant” and referring to him as one “of us women,” according to an investigation by the county attorney’s office.

An attorney’s office investigator began his inquiry two days before Powers Gardner announced her bid for a vacant County Commission seat, according to a report obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

The former employee, whose name is redacted, asked to meet with human resources on Oct. 20, 2020, after Powers Gardner threw her keys and purse at him twice and berated him in front of other staff, the report said. The former employee also noted examples of when the clerk/auditor, who took office in 2019, made inappropriate references to his sexual orientation. She allegedly called his performance “great for being a gay democrat,” according to the report.

Four unnamed employees confirmed the inappropriate behavior, according to the report, and two said Powers Gardner made a joke about giving the former employee a “flaming hot Cheeto” during sexual harassment training.

The former employee did not terminate his position with the county due to Powers Gardner’s conduct, however, the report noted. He told the county attorney’s office he wanted the case to finally be closed, that he considered the matter resolved and that he “didn’t want it to be escalated this far.”

“Here are the facts: late last year a conflict arose within our office with one of my all-star employees, whom I also consider a long-time close personal friend,” Powers Gardner said in an emailed statement. “The conflict arose from personal miscommunication during the most stressful time of the 2020 election and briefly became a problem within the office.”

The clerk/auditor added that she believed the human resources department had adequately investigated the matter before the attorney’s office became involved.

“I regretted my part in the conflict with such a valued friend and am committed to improve moving forward,” Powers Gardner said. “HR made some recommendations, which we gladly followed, and everyone involved believed the matter was resolved and closed.”

Powers Gardner also questioned the timing of the attorney’s office investigation and whether it was politically motivated.

“It has now come to my attention that certain officials within Utah County plan to release a ‘report’ about events from last year, possibly to hurt my chances in the upcoming Special Election” for the commission seat vacated by Tanner Ainge, Powers Gardner said.

Commissioner Bill Lee emailed a statement late Friday afternoon commending Powers Gardner for acknowledging her behavior.

“The first step to real change is admitting there is a problem,” Lee wrote. “I want to reassure all county employees that I do not tolerate this behavior. If any of them feel they are the victim of any type of harassment, they should feel free to come and talk with me. My door is always open.”

Human Resources had asked Utah County Attorney David O. Leavitt to conduct a review of the harassment claims in early December, per an April 2 cover letter included with the investigation report. Leavitt decided to turn the matter over to his office’s own investigation bureau to save taxpayers $8,000 to $10,000 from an external investigation, according to the letter.

But the attorney’s office waited nearly four months to look into the matter because of its current workload, the fact that the employee making the allegations was no longer employed by the county, and because no discipline could be imposed since Powers Gardner is an elected official, Leavitt, a 2020 candidate for attorney general, wrote.

“The urgency to complete the investigation accelerated when Amelia Powers Gardner ... voiced an intention to run for a vacancy on the Utah County Commission,” Leavitt wrote. “Had I [a] crystal ball, I would have taken the additional step of committing county resources to pay for an external investigation.”

An investigator met with Powers Gardner on March 25, according to the report, and the clerk/auditor explained she realized why her comments were not appropriate in a work setting.

“... however, it also seemed she would minimize her actions when given the opportunity,” the investigator wrote.

“Ms. Powers appeared remorseful over the damage done to the relationship she had with [the former employee] but never really seemed to show sorrow for the comments she made or the uncomfortable office environment she created,” the investigator wrote in the report.

Asked whether throwing her purse and keys at an employee was appropriate, the clerk/auditor explained to the investigator that she was trying to get his attention while on a phone call with a news reporter calling with questions about the 2020 election, according to the report.

Powers Gardner confirmed with The Tribune that she completed workplace harassment training in December.

The attorney’s office report concluded that the clerk/auditor’s behavior “can certainly be categorized as sexual harassment” but noted there was “no clear direction” on how to handle such behavior from an elected official.

The report recommended no additional action.