Few Utahns had any idea that Spencer Cox’s 2020 campaign for governor was, at least for some, alleged to be a toxic work environment before Cox himself dropped a bombshell on his personal Twitter account.
It was a bold move. But that bomb still needs to be defused before the matter can be put behind the governor and the state.
The Oct. 7 statement from Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson disclosed that their former campaign manager, Austin Cox, was accused by another campaign staffer of “sexual misconduct.” The campaign manager, who is not related to the governor, was reportedly put on administrative leave while an independent outside firm was brought in to investigate.
We were devastated to learn of this abuse of trust and condemn this kind of behavior in the strongest terms. pic.twitter.com/VhO0EDL88R— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) October 7, 2021
The findings of that investigation, the statement said, were that the accusations were true and included “previously unreported hostile behavior towards select members of our team.” It all warranted the dismissal of Austin Cox, the statement said, but that the campaign manager had resigned before the probe was completed.
The governor accepted responsibility for what went on in his campaign operation, condemned the alleged misbehavior, congratulated the alleged victims for coming forward and pledged to take steps to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.
That is all good, as far as it goes. But it does not go nearly far enough.
Cox should see this as not just an opportunity to put a scandal behind him, but to open up and use it as a chance to set an example. To explain to politically ambitious men that sexual misconduct is not something they are allowed to do and to politically talented women that it is not something they are expected to put up with.
The people of Utah generally, and specifically the campaign manager accused of misconduct and his alleged victims, all deserve to know a lot more about the circumstances. This includes how long the alleged misconduct was permitted, who did the investigation, what evidence it used to reach its conclusion, who paid the investigators and who funded settlements, if any, with campaign workers.
This is a “what did the governor know and when did he know it?” moment.
Any special fundraising undertaken to pay for the investigation and for any settlement(s) must be detailed as required by law in the normal course of campaign finance reporting. That matters because anyone who paid for the process shouldn’t be allowed to keep all that off the books and expect any special access or favoritism in return for assistance.
(Certainly Gov. Cox would not be foolish enough to break the law and use state funds for any of this. But we should have that on the record.)
Austin Cox “unequivocally and emphatically denies” any misconduct. He has retained attorneys to represent him in the court of public opinion, and perhaps in any legal proceedings that may follow. He, like the rest of us, apparently has not been told the details of what he is alleged to have done, nor of whatever evidence exists to support the governor’s claim that he was unaware of what was going on in his own operation.
After Austin Cox left the campaign and the governor’s transition team, he was in the process of setting himself up as a corporate lobbyist. And, given his contacts with the administration and others, he was in a position to make quite a killing in that field. Until the governor’s statement led to the end of his contract with one of the state’s biggest government relations operations, Foxley & Pignanelli.
The report of the governor’s investigators must be made public, with appropriate redactions to protect the identity of victims and innocent third parties. There must also be an opportunity for anyone else with knowledge of the circumstances to come forward before the matter is considered closed.
This scandal is too important — to those directly involved and to the state as a whole — to be covered in a tweet.