A Republican challenger in the Utah County attorney’s race has demanded an apology from incumbent David Leavitt for suggesting in a fundraising email that he was spreading allegations that Leavitt was suspected of ritualistic sex abuse and cannibalism.
“That’s simply not true,” candidate Jeff Gray said at a news conference Tuesday at the Utah Capitol. “I’ve never made such an accusation. Quite frankly, I demand that he retract that.”
But Leavitt said he has no plans to retract anything said in the campaign email, where he wrote: “My opponent has outdone himself with his latest claims, accusing me of cannibalizing young children and participating in a ritualistic sex ring … He’s abusing his office to level these outlandish political attacks against me and my family.”
In a phone call with The Salt Lake Tribune after Gray’s news conference, Leavitt said those comments weren’t about his challenger, but that he was speaking of Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith.
“I would certainly contend that Mike Smith is my political opponent,” he said. “When Mike Smith and Jeff Gray have the same campaign manager and appear at campaign functions together — I view Mike Smith and Jeff Gray as one.”
Leavitt has publicly denied accusations for weeks that he was involved in a ritual sex ring or cannibalism, a bizarre turn in this local primary election that has now made national headlines.
At a June 1 news conference, Leavitt decried a probe being conducted by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, who’d announced the day prior that it was investigating a “ritualistic child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking” case that occurred in Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties between 1999 and 2010.
The sheriff’s office didn’t name Leavitt — or anyone else — as suspects.
But Leavitt saw a victim’s statement had been released that named him. He believed the timing of the sheriff’s office announcement was suspicious, since Smith, the sheriff, had endorsed Gray in the county attorney race and made the announcement about the investigation just a week before ballots were mailed to voters.
Since holding that news conference to publicly deny cannibalism accusations and calling for Smith’s resignation, Leavitt said he’s seen a flood of more than $100,000 in campaign donations.
Political opponents, new and old
Gray isn’t alone in his frustration with the Utah County attorney. A political action committee with ties to the Utah Sheriffs’ Association has recently raised thousands of dollars in hopes of torpedoing Leavitt’s re-election bid.
Utahns for Safer Communities has amassed $30,000 in donations — all of which came in the days immediately following the sheriff’s announcement of the investigation of the alleged ritual sex abuse ring. The fundraising organization is also behind TheLeavittFactor.com, a new website that calls Leavitt “soft on crime” and “ethically challenged.”
The PAC was created a week before Smith’s office published the news release about the ritualistic sexual abuse investigation. The organization officers include former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and Scott Burns, the executive director of the Utah Sheriff’s Association. Hughes also works as a lobbyist for the sheriff’s association.
Donors to the PAC include Burns, Hughes, his lobbying partners at Hartley Consulting (who designed the site), state Rep. Mike Schultz, state Sen. Mike McKell, Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Tucker and Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins.
Hughes spoke at Gray’s news conference Tuesday, saying he is interested in the county race because he feels the issues at the heart of the race are statewide. If one county attorney is soft on crime, he said, it can encourage human and drug trafficking cartels to set up there.
“These county boundaries do not have some wall around them,” he said. “There’s no magical difference between one side of that county line and the other. If you have a county like Utah County, you’re going to find a cartel presence — sophisticated organized crime will go there if they understand that the consequences aren’t high. They can commit their crime and their business in a way that is not interrupted.”
Leavitt called this assertion a “ridiculous scare tactic” and said he believes Hughes and those with ties to the sheriff’s association created Utahns for Safer Communities because they view him as a threat.
“They are the power structure,” he said. “They have no check. And I’m on the check on them. What this reveals is that it’s important to have someone be a check on power. I’m a check on the sheriff. I’m also a check on the activities in the Legislature.”
“This is their chance to get me,” he added. “And maybe they will.”
Leavitt has had plenty of political opponents — law enforcement, legislators and former prosecutors in office — who’ve criticized his decision-making during his four-year tenure as Utah County attorney, particularly the move to disband the special victims unit in 2020.
Gray, who works as an appellate lawyer for the Utah attorney general’s office, said Leavitt’s reform efforts have gone too far and have lost focus on victims and community safety.
“This was not my plan to run for office,” he said Tuesday. “I am not a politician. I am a prosecutor. I believe in the rule of law. But I felt that I had to get into the race once I learned of the policies that our current county attorney is implementing.”
Leavitt has been unapologetic about those changes. He has cut down the number of felony cases his office has prosecuted and put in place a pre-filing diversion program where people arrested for minor, non-violent crimes can stay out of the criminal justice system and instead are connected to resources. He said, if re-elected, he will focus on moving his office away from offering plea bargains and taking more cases to trial.
One man down
The county attorney race will be decided in the June 28 primary because there is no Democratic challenger. Republican voters will see another name on the ballot, Adam Pomeroy, although he bowed out of the race nearly two weeks ago.
Pomeroy, who was at Gray’s news conference on Tuesday to make an endorsement, said it was clear he couldn’t prevail in a three-person primary where Leavitt has name recognition and wealth to put behind a campaign.
He’s currently a prosecutor in Leavitt’s office, and said he ran for county attorney after seeing first-hand how Leavitt’s policy decisions have led to a backlog of cases and an exodus of experienced prosecutors.
Pomeroy said running for office not only put his career on the line, but also his wife’s, who’s also a Utah County prosecutor. He expects that if Leavitt is re-elected he will be forced out of his job, and said his wife recently gave notice that she would be leaving hers.
“It is no secret why so many have fled,” he said. “The currency of the office is no longer loyalty to the Constitution or a duty to see justice done, but a personal loyalty to Mr. Leavitt above all.”
Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.