Judge blasts the office of Attorney General Sean Reyes for ‘haphazard’ record keeping

In one case, a thumb drive with documents was found in a drawer.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

As controversy engulfed his predecessor, who was accused of doing favors for wealthy supporters and friends and receiving improper gifts, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes was swept into office.

Reyes now faces his own audit — for his relationship with Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard. In another case, his office has been lambasted by a judge for failing to carry out reforms Reyes promised to make in the wake of John Swallow’s resignation.

With no officewide system for tracking documents, in 2015 state auditors found the attorney general’s office was missing legal deadlines, dropping cases and wasting time looking for paperwork – including in response to requests for public records. Reyes agreed in his official response, saying tracking cases and records was one of his top priorities as he worked to rebuild trust in the office.

But in a scathing ruling in January, 3rd District Court Judge Randall Skanchy said the way Reyes’ office stores and searches for records remains “haphazard” — leaving him with “no expectation that a ‘reasonable search’ could ever be conducted in any” request for records.

In one highlight, Skanchy said, a thumb drive that held thousands of documents and downloaded emails sought in a records request was “presumed lost.”

The judge had continued to press the office to search, and the thumb drive was “discovered” in 2022, he wrote, five years after the records should have been produced. It was found in “a ‘junk drawer’ in a side credenza” in the IT director’s office.

The records were requested in 2016 by Paul Amann, a former assistant attorney general who was terminated and is suing the office in a federal whistleblower retaliation lawsuit. He contends the lack of a records management system gives the office an excuse to withhold documents, especially if the requester can’t afford to litigate the case.

“The average citizen that has a legitimate concern and files a request,” Amann said, “they’re just going to get shut down and stonewalled.”

Skanchy ordered the document be turned over and the attorney general’s office appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, asking it to overrule the decision. Reyes’ office delayed filing briefs on that appeal for months until November when it withdrew its appeal. In a statement the office has said that it conducts records searches diligently and with transparency.

“The Office takes all GRAMA requests seriously, abides by GRAMA reasonable search requirements and provides access to responsive documents that have been located as required under GRAMA,” the statement reads.

From ‘Child Advocate of the Year’ to office pariah.

As the attorney general’s office was being shaken by corruption allegations against former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, Amann’s career was on an upward trajectory. In 2013, the organization Prevent Child Abuse Utah named him “Child Advocate of the Year,” after he had served as the lead prosecutor for the attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

(AP Photo | Rick Bowmer) Paul G. Amann, a former assistant attorney general, leaves a courtroom in Matheson Courthouse Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

According to Amann’s whistleblower lawsuit, the troubles began that year — before Swallow resigned in November — when Amann began alleging the office was committing “violations of state and federal law and misuse of government funds.” He challenged the decision to hire a paralegal to work on Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force cases even though she had a criminal record and had served time in prison for various offenses, “including assaulting a law enforcement officer.”

Her new position would be funded by a federal grant that forbade hiring a person with a criminal record, according to Amann. He said he reported the alleged “misuse” of federal grant funding to the office’s civil chief, Kirk Torgensen.

Then, Amann said, he received leaked documents that alleged his own supervisor was having an inappropriate relationship with the paralegal, and he passed those documents to the FBI. After the allegation was reported by reporter Lynn Packer, the office conducted an internal investigation into “leaked emails and hiring standards,” but not into the inappropriate relationship, Amann alleges.

By this time, Swallow had resigned; he would later be cleared of wrongdoing. Then-Gov. Gary Herbert appointed Reyes to take his place. “I tried to report it to Sean Reyes but he turned a deaf ear to me,” Amann said.

He soon found himself moved to a new division with a pay cut, he said. While Amann said that Reyes would not meet with him about the complaint he learned separately that an investigation had begun by the state’s Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM) and so he reached out to provide them information. According to the DHRM report, the investigation was called for by the Attorney General’s Office, but Amann believes that’s because they were trying to control the investigation.

The agency investigation determined the relationship didn’t violate agency policy. But it did note that the relationship “exposed the Office of the Attorney General to potential liability based on a charge of unlawful sexual harassment or a claim of paramour favoritism by third parties.”

In 2015, Amann would provide information to legislative auditors about his allegations of “corruption” at the office and would then soon be suspended, placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the office by constables in front of his colleagues, he said. In 2017 he said he was terminated for the “bullying” of the former paralegal who still worked there.

He was barred from getting personal belongings from his office and for years could not access records he had there and needed for his litigation, according to his whistleblower lawsuit. He said he was not allowed to collect personal items left in his office until this past summer, including a medal from running the Boston Marathon.

The Attorney General’s office said in a statement that it stands by the termination of Amann for harassing the employee and has moved to have the federal whistleblower suit dismissed.

Amann had filed a request under the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, for records related to his termination and was denied. That kicked off the 2017 litigation. After the initial denial, Amann filed multiple more specific requests and received thousands of pages of documents — but still felt he wasn’t getting everything.

Looking for records ‘hat in hand’

In the records dispute, the Attorney General’s office eventually hired outside counsel from Ray, Quinney & Nebeker to help the A.G.’s office search for relevant records. In April 2022, those attorneys found something unusual — a thumb drive in a desk at the agency. The drive contained 2,699 documents and over 53,000 emails between the former paralegal and Amann’s supervisor and other individuals related to Amann’s termination.

In 2022, Amann tried to get access to the files on the drive.

The lawyer representing the attorney general’s office noted that Amann was provided nearly 5,000 pages of documents, just not the thumb drive.

“It’s not fair to say that the AG’s office just said ‘go pound sand, we’re not giving you anything,’” Beth Ranschau said. “He issued 56 requests and he received as an initial response, 4,691 pages.”

She also defended withholding the documents because Amann never requested files specifically from a “thumb drive.” She also said that a staffer looked at approximately 100 emails out of 53,000 on the drive and determined they were not relevant to Amann’s request.

Judge Skanchy, however, noted that having a staffer who is not an attorney determine they were not relevant was “absurd.” Months later Skanchy expanded his ruling to order that the thumb drive be provided to Amann “in its entirety un-redacted” and that other searches be conducted.

He challenged the records search method that he described as office records custodian Lonny Pehrson going “hat in hand” to various departments and asking them if they have relevant records.

“The haphazard way records are stored and are serendipitously located is the subject of much concern, not only by this Court, but by Legislative Auditors,” Skanchy said, referring to the 2015 legislative audit. It had “highlighted the lack of a document management system for record retention,” the judge pointed out, “for which the Legislature thereafter provided the AGO with funding in order to rectify the problem, evidently with little success.”

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, remembers the controversies that followed the departure of the previous attorney general. He is disappointed to hear that the office did not create a document management system, as the office had told legislative auditors they would back in 2015.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that we funded it and they used it for something else,” Weiler said. “That happens more often than we’d like.”

Weiler, who also signed onto the request for the current audit, hopes that legislative auditors renew their scrutiny of the records-keeping process, or lack thereof at the attorney general’s office.

“I think if anything I would want the attorney general’s office to be an example and leader in that field rather than a laggard,” he said.

In a statement, the office defended its record-keeping system and noted the office “has a dedicated attorney and paralegal to respond to GRAMA requests and continuously improves how records searches are documented.” The statement also said that after the 2015 audit, the office purchased a document management system called Legal Files.

“This system specializes in case management and may not pick up documents unrelated to ongoing cases,” the statement reads. “Thus, we continue to use additional systems for GRAMA searches. The Office will continue to be vigilant in our reasonable search requirements and maintain modern systems and software in our efforts to maintain the highest levels of transparency.”

Media law attorney Jeff Hunt calls the case “concerning” since citizens requesting records largely have to trust the word of the agency they seek records from.

“It’s really the honor system and we have no ability as citizens to check that,” Hunt said, adding that most agencies do take their legal obligations seriously.

“Seems like this was a situation where it was set up for failure because they didn’t have a system for managing their records such that you could even determine that they conducted a reasonable search or not.”

While Amann said he still has more litigating to do, he feels vindicated that more scrutiny is coming to Reyes and the office.

“Sean Reyes came into office campaigning on transparency and how he was going to clean up the office,” Amann said. “Based on my experience, it has been the exact opposite.”

Editor’s note 11:45 a.m., Dec 14, 2023: This story was updated to clarify that the outside counsel from Ray, Quinney & Nebeker was hired by the Utah Attorney General’s Office and to add the office’s comments.