Utah A.G. Sean Reyes’ office to be investigated over concerns of relationship with Tim Ballard, oversight

The request stems from long-standing concerns about management of the office and Reyes’ close friendship with embattled founder of Operation Underground Railroad.

Utah’s legislative auditor will investigate the attorney general’s office amid lingering questions about its leadership and new issues relating to Attorney General Sean Reyes’ long-standing friendship with Tim Ballard, the now-ousted founder of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad.

The move comes after more than two dozen bipartisan state lawmakers requested the sweeping audit in a letter dated Monday, and two days after The Tribune detailed 30-some luxury trips by Reyes over a 3-year period.

“We have been concerned about the governance and oversight of the AG’s office, well before any allegations came to light raising suspicion into the relationship of the AG with Tim Ballard,” reads the letter, signed by 26 lawmakers — nearly a quarter of Utah’s Legislature.

They are asking legislative auditors to evaluate:

• The governance of the office and adequacy of how legal and administrative decisions are made;

• The travel policies and practices in the office and whether travel is appropriate;

• Whether staff believes the office is being run efficiently and effectively;

• And the extent of Reyes’ relationship with Ballard, including whether any state resources were used to help Operation Underground Railroad or “Sound of Freedom,” the recent movie based on Ballard’s story, whether Reyes engaged with outside prosecutors investigating OUR, and whether the friendship between Reyes and Ballard impaired Reyes’ prosecutorial judgment.

“The audit should assess the adequacy of governance along with the efficiency, effectiveness and overall performance of the office in carrying out its responsibilities and duties,” Senate President J. Stuart Adams said in committee on Tuesday.

Lawmakers did not have any significant discussion about this audit, nor the others audits selected for prioritization, and the motion passed unanimously.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the lead House member on the request, said the Legislature routinely audits government offices.

“When matters persist in the news and our constituents bring these questions to their legislators, audits are the way in the regular course of business that we receive in-depth information to answer such questions,” Ivory said in a statement after the vote. “Regular audits of crucial executive branch functions, like the [attorney general’s office], are how we diagnose whether issues exist and, if they do, how to address them.”

Reyes’ spokesperson Rich Piatt said in a statement Tuesday that the office welcomes the audit and will provide auditors with the information they need.

“We are confident they will see what we already know: the Office of the Utah [Attorney General] does great work,” Piatt said. “We are proud of our personnel, leadership, and the cases we file to protect the people of Utah.”

Late Tuesday, the newly elected House Speaker Mike Schultz, who also sits on the audit subcommittee, said he considers Reyes a friend.

“It’s been a long time, honestly since that (an audit) has happened. We’ve had conversations with Attorney General Reyes, and he’s fully supportive and wants to work together,” Schultz said. “Questions will come up about the OUR stuff, and that’s fair. But we’re looking more broadly and holistically.”

The last two legislative audits of the attorney general’s office came out in 2015, and were initiated in July 2013, when the office was embroiled in a controversy that led to the resignation of then-Attorney General John Swallow and the selection of Reyes as his replacement. Swallow was later charged with multiple felonies but acquitted by a jury.

The audit found a lack of accountability in the office and an absence of performance measures and whistleblower protections.

Reyes and Ballard’s relationship

For the past decade, Reyes has been a vocal supporter of Ballard and OUR, participating in child rescue missions, attending fundraisers and appearing in OUR-produced documentaries highlighting the nonprofit’s work.

Reyes also received an associate producer credit on “Sound of Freedom,” a fictionalized movie about Ballard’s life.

Six women have accused Ballard of sexual misconduct and assault and filed a civil lawsuit against him. Reyes has said that the accusations “ought to be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.”

Monday’s audit request is signed by 11 senators — seven of them Republicans — and 15 House members, two of whom are Democrats.

Last month, lawmakers frustrated by Reyes’ long support of the embattled activist reinvigorated discussions on how the state chooses its top law enforcement officer. Several lawmakers said then that an audit could be on the table.

“I think there’s huge frustration with Sean Reyes on Capitol Hill right now,” Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said in an interview then. “Being the attorney general is not a high priority for him and people are frustrated.”

Reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.