Utah auditor blasts ‘invasive and overly aggressive Legislature’ for making him trans ‘bathroom monitor’

John Dougall said lawmakers did not consult with his office until shortly before passing a law that it field complaints about government entity violations of a trans bathroom ban.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Messages in support of transgender rights cover a toilet bowl during a demostration by Utah Students Unite in opposition of HB257 on the steps of the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2024.

When John Dougall ran for Utah auditor, he didn’t set out to “become a bathroom monitor” — and he didn’t ask the Utah Legislature to make him responsible for enforcing a transgender bathroom ban signed into law in January, he said in a statement Tuesday.

In the days since Dougall’s office launched a form to report violations of the law in government buildings, which was required by statute, it has had to sift through thousands of “frivolous complaints,” which the auditor blamed on the “controversial topic and the hurried nature of its passage.”

“I recognize that many Utahns feel trampled by an invasive and overly aggressive Legislature that too often fails to seek input from those most affected,” Dougall, a Republican, said in his statement. “Constituents unhappy with this Statute will not effect change by misdirecting their anger toward the Office and its dedicated employees. The Legislature crafted these public policies, and only the Legislature can revise them.”

In a call Friday — less than 72 hours after the reporting form went live — Dougall told The Salt Lake Tribune that the office had received nearly 4,000 “bogus” complaints. “We didn’t see anything that looks credible,” he added.

Since then, numerous people posted on social media about their aim to clog up the form with additional hoax complaints. Some noted there was no limit on attachment size, and that they had attached large files, including entire movies, in an effort to overwhelm the digital infrastructure used by the office.

Dougall’s Tuesday statement said the office has still not received “a single legitimate complaint.”

His office created the online reporting tool to comply with Morgan Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland’s “Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying and Women’s Opportunities,” or HB257.

After being pushed through the Legislature in the first couple weeks of the 2024 session and quickly signed by Gov. Spencer Cox in January, the now-law changes the legal definitions of “female” and “male” to categorize Utahns by the reproductive organs of their birth, and restricts which bathrooms and locker rooms trans people can use in government-owned buildings.

The law goes on to require the state auditor’s office to “establish a process to receive and investigate alleged violations of this chapter by a government entity” — not individuals, Dougall emphasized in the statement — and then notify that entity. If the violation isn’t resolved, the auditor must refer the issue to the Utah attorney general’s office, which can then impose fines up to $10,000 “per violation per day.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, listens to public comment on her bill to narrow Utah's legal definitions of sex to exclude transgender people (HB 257) at a meeting of the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

His office was criticized on social media for allowing a field where reporters can attach documents, including images, over concerns people would take photos of others in restrooms and locker rooms. After telling The Tribune that such fields are standard in the office’s reporting forms, Dougall wrote in the statement that complainants who submit lewd or voyeuristic images in a “privacy space” will be reported to law enforcement.

Dougall wrote in his statement that the form was created to “comply with a statutory mandate — a role we did not request.”

He continued, “Unfortunately, neither Rep. Birkeland, nor any other legislator consulted with this Office regarding this newly mandated obligation placed on the Office under this bill. Like many in the public, we learned about our role under this bill shortly before the bill was rushed to final passage.”

In a statement sent through a spokesperson for the Utah House of Representatives, Birkeland said lawmakers weighed a number of options as to which agency should oversee enforcement of the law before landing on the auditor’s office. She added that the Legislature appreciates the office’s “cooperation and willingness to implement state code.”

“It’s not surprising that activists are taking the time to send false reports,” Birkeland said in the statement. “But that isn’t a distraction from the importance of the legislation and the protection it provides women all across Utah. We remain focused on protecting girls in our school bathrooms and locker rooms and women in public bathrooms and locker rooms.”

She continued, “Public backlash from this legislation was completely expected, but at the end of the day, we do what is best for Utah, despite outcries from a loud and vocal minority.”

While it didn’t specifically ask about trans bathroom bans, a recent survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the vast majority of Utahns — 86% — support laws that protect the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. Utah was among states with the highest support for such nondiscrimination protections — ahead of reliably blue states like California and New York.