How Utah lawmakers approved a nearly $500k security package for Gov. Cox’s home while keeping the public in the dark

The sponsor of the 2021 bill, Utah Sen. Don Ipson, said the Legislature was “very transparent” last year, but the security package for Gov. Spencer Cox’s Fairview property was never mentioned publicly.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, during Senate floor time at the Legislative Session, Jan. 25, 2022.

The sponsor of a 2021 bill that greenlit a half-million-dollar security upgrade to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s private residence in Fairview says that lawmakers were transparent about how the taxpayer’s money was going to be spent.

But there is no mention of details of the project, like that it would be at Cox’s home, anywhere in publicly-available records from the lawmaking process last year.

In 2021 the Utah Legislature approved a nearly $500,000 one-time appropriation tucked into SB222 for Capitol Security. It was never disclosed that those funds were to pay for a permanent security office, security fencing and monitoring at Gov. Spencer Cox’s private residence.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, disputed that claim on Thursday. Responding to a question about whether he specifically said the money was for security upgrades at the Governor’s home.

“That’s right,” Ipson replied. “We talked about that in the appropriations committee. We were very transparent.”

But discussions about the security package were not made public, if talked about in committee at all.

A review of all public presentations on SB222 and related appropriations committees show Ipson never so much as hinted that the money was for Cox’s house in Fairview.

Ipson, who sponsored the 2021 senate bill, never officially made the request for the appropriation to the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee. That’s not unusual, as many spending items are not publicly presented to that committee since they’re attached to legislation that goes through the committee process.

When the appropriations committee made its final recommendations for funding items, money was included for “Executive Protection” — a $900,000 ongoing appropriation and a $480,000 one-time supplemental appropriation for 2021. The accompanying description read, “This request is for a mix of added security for executive (constitutional officers) and the Legislature both for the Capitol Complex but in some cases, beyond the Capitol depending on threat levels.” This is the only time funding operations outside the state Capitol is mentioned.

Legislative leaders and Cox both cited rising threats as justification for the appropriation.

On Thursday morning, after The Salt Lake Tribune first reported on the project, Cox tweeted he was informed of threats shortly after being elected, saying he was “sick to learn how dangerous things had become.”

“I daresay every one of us has been threatened in one way or another,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said.

The urgency of those threats was apparently not communicated to their fellow legislators.

The spending for executive protection was ranked 70th on the committee’s priority funding list. Only one funding request received a lower priority, and that was to fill a funding gap of approximately $1,500 in the Attorney General’s office. That list of priorities was made public on Feb. 10, 2021.

SB222 was introduced publicly for the first time on Feb. 19 and was presented in the Senate three days later. The first, and only, committee hearing for the bill was Feb. 24, debate on the legislation lasted all of two and a half minutes. Then, Ipson said the bill was to provide protection for “certain public officials” and their staff at the Capitol Hill complex. There was no mention of security upgrades at Cox’s home. The committee passed the bill unanimously.

A day later the legislation came up on the Senate floor for the first time. Ipson again explained the bill was to provide security for public officials and provides “tools and the money” to do that. After some pointed questioning from Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, about specifics for that security and whether it would lead to magnetometers at the Capitol, Ipson said the bill added more staff but did not provide for metal detectors. He added it would “expand coverage” to take care of staff and members of the Legislature. Again, there was no mention of any spending on Cox’s private property.

On Feb. 26, the Senate gave final approval to SB222. Ipson again explained the bill provided security for public officials and their staff “within the Capitol Hill complex.” Again, there was no mention of spending in rural Utah.

There was no House committee hearing since it was so close to the end of the session. Debate on the House floor also made no mention about funding security outside of Capitol Hill.

The Executive Appropriations Committee considered the $500,000 appropriation on Feb. 26 and March 4. In both meetings, the appropriation was not brought up or discussed.

Despite claims of a transparent process, there was never even a hint publicly that the money was destined for Gov. Cox’s property.

After confidently declaring the process for approving that money was public and transparent, Ipson gave himself some wiggle room.

“I thought it was transparent. If people weren’t aware of that, I apologize. We weren’t giving any effort to try and cover it up. It was just part of the process,” he said.