Tribune editorial: Should tainted councilman be S.L. County’s inland port voice?

Michael Jensen, •Salt Lake County Council member

Some might think Salt Lake County Council member Michael Jensen has lost the public’s trust.

Two years ago he resigned as chief of the Unified Fire Authority after questions arose over bonuses he and others in his department received.

A week before his resignation, the state announced it was launching an audit of UFA based on “a complaint alleging improper compensation to certain employees, misuse of credit cards and other potential misuse of public funds.”

In January 2017 — months after Jensen was re-elected to the county council — the state auditor released the audit, which exposed a pattern of lax oversight at UFA and indicated that Jensen misused as much as $370,000 in public money. The auditor even took the unusual step of recommending the UFA board seek a criminal investigation.

After that, Jensen reached out to lobbyists to solicit donations to a legal defense fund, despite state law that says such solicitations should be made through political campaigns and reported publicly.

Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens reported this week that the Utah Attorney General’s office, which took on the investigation the state auditor recommended, decided in July not to pursue criminal charges against Jensen and his deputy chief.

Stevens’ story also included many details about UTA-sized executive bonuses for Jensen and others and the methods used for getting them approved without the full Utah Fire Authority board signing off. There’s also Jensen’s credit card charges, including a stainless steel Apple watch and $430 meal charged at the Salt Lake Hilton on election night, which he claimed was for UFA business.

In all, the investigative documents show a heap of impropriety. But, once again, no public official will pay a price in court for it. The standards for illegal behavior by public officials in Utah apparently are still below the shenanigans of the Unified Fire Authority.

Yes, some might think Jensen has lost the public’s trust, but Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams apparently isn’t among them. In May, while Jensen was still under criminal investigation, McAdams appointed him to be on the Inland Port Authority Board. McAdams' spokeswoman noted that Jensen represents Magna, near the planned port, and council members Aimee Winder Newton and Richard Snelgrove were supportive of the choice. She also says McAdams knew Jensen wouldn’t be prosecuted when he made the appointment, although it wasn’t until July 17 that the attorney general notified the auditor that he wasn’t pursuing prosecution.

It can be argued that Jensen shouldn’t even be on the county council, given his dodgy history with county money. But it’s particularly hard to swallow that Jensen is still considered a good enough risk to be the county’s voice on the port board. This is a body born out of a rushed process in back rooms. Adding Jensen only fuels the perception that the port is above public scrutiny.

We may not be able to let the courts deal with our irresponsible public servants, but do we have to give them plum assignments?