CEDAR CITY – Drama is stirring again in Iron County, this time over a $1,000 treadmill desk the sheriff purchased for 12 of his employees and an online fundraiser created to pay for it.
Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett recently turned the information over to Kane County Attorney Rob Van Dyke to screen for possible criminal charges.
Van Dyke confirmed Thursday that Garrett gave him the case due to a conflict of interest. Van Dyke said he has since turned the information over to the Kanab City Police for further investigation. The Kane County Attorney did not provide any additional comment, stating it is too early in the process.
Sheriff Mark Gower approved the purchase of the NordicTrack exercise equipment in October 2016 at the request of the employees. He used a county credit card to buy it.
The idea in part came from the Department of Public Safety that purchased a similar treadmill for its employees at the Cedar Communications Center, which dispatches for Iron County and portions of northern Washington County.
“We studied the issue and all the information showed that the health benefits alone made it worth the cost,” sheriff’s Lt. Del Schlosser said. “The treadmill is used by 12 employees and there are employees that are at their desk upwards of 12 hours a day. In the long run we believe it will save the taxpayers money in health care expenses.”
The legality of the purchase became an issue after the auditor’s office brought it to the Iron County commissioners’ attention. The commission later denied the purchase deeming it an “inappropriate use of taxes,” former interim-Commissioner Casey Anderson said. Anderson was the commission liaison for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We didn’t want to set a precedent throughout the county. We have a lot of employees in the county and if we have to purchase treadmill desks for all of them that is going to get into a lot of money,” Anderson said. “The Sheriff’s Office also has a treadmill downstairs in their exercise room that they can use.”
Commissioner Dale Brinkerhoff pointed to several small business owners he said he knows would not spend the money to buy this type of equipment for their employees.
“If the majority of the private sector isn’t going to buy it for their employees, we in government have no business buying it for ours,” Brinkerhoff said. “I do not believe it’s the proper use of taxpayers’ money. Government employees are not entitled to more than those in the private sector are.”
Gower said he told Anderson then that he would take care of the expense but did not provide specifics. The two discussed the possibility of using money from what the employees call the sheriff’s association fund, he said, a fund his office’s employees contribute to themselves for “extras” that come up from time to time, whether parties, flowers for funerals or the like. Anderson volunteered to make a personal donation to assist in that effort.
To help offset the costs, Schlosser created a GoFundMe account to raise money from the public. The online fundraiser was set up to have money deposited in the checking account belonging to the employees’ association fund. The money would have then been used to pay back the county.
“That money was never going to go in anyone’s pocket,” Gower said. “The money in the GoFundMe account was to be deposited in the association account and then they would have wrote a check to the county to cover the costs.”
Schlosser said he was informed by the County Attorney’s Office the fundraiser violated Utah Code 67-16-5. Schlosser took the fundraising page down and refunded the $550 collected.
The statute cited, insofar as it pertains to monetary donations, makes it an offense for a public officer or employee to knowingly seek or receive donations of substantial value that are given with the intent of influencing the recipient (the public officer or employee) (1) to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of the person’s duties; (2) as a reward for official action taken; or (3) if he or she has been, is now, or in the near future may be involved in any governmental action directly affecting the donor.
Offenses under Utah Code 67-16 may result in the public officer or employee’s dismissal from employment or removal from office and punishment ranging from a Class B misdemeanor to a second-degree felony. A second-degree felony requires the total compensation constituting the offense exceed $1,000.
Scott Burns, former Iron County Attorney for 16 years before Garrett, does not interpret the law the same as his successor.
“This law is meant to prevent elected leaders and government employees from accepting gifts and money in return for favors,” Burns said. “Lt. Schlosser was not doing that. He was not accepting anything for him personally or for the sheriff. They were raising funds for the sheriff’s office to have a treadmill desk. Soliciting donations for equipment and other necessities through fundraisers is done all the time. Look at the K-9 program or search and rescue. The GoFundMe account is just another way to do fundraising,”
Garrett would not speak to the differences between the fundraisers, referring all questions to the Kane County Attorney.
As to the purchase itself, Burns said he believes the elected sheriff has the autonomy to spend the money in his budget as he chooses.
Iron County Auditor Dan Jessen agreed with Burns but said the commissioners also have the right to scrutinize everything.
Burns believes Garrett’s decision was in part retaliation for recent allegations by the sheriff that the commissioners tried to hack into his emails with the authorization of the county attorney. Those allegations were sent to the state Attorney General’s Office prompting investigators to open a criminal investigation.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more dysfunctional relationship between a county attorney’s office and commissioners and a sheriff’s office,” said Burns, who also served for five years as director for the National District Attorneys Association that represents 2,500 elected prosecutors and 40,000 deputy prosecutors. “I am beyond saddened that a county attorney would even think that this falls within the realm of criminal conduct and I can only think that it is politically motivated – has to be – and that’s sad and embarrassing.”
Garrett would not comment on his personal opinion of the purchase or the GoFundMe.com account. However, he did speak to concerns that the decision was retaliatory.
“I think if that was true we would not refer it out for somebody else to look at,” Garrett said. “I mean our job is to protect the integrity of the system and that’s why we’re not looking at this.”
Van Dyke said it is likely the police investigation will take two weeks or more to finish. At that time, he said he will issue a statement as to his plans moving forward.
St. George News Senior Reporter Mori Kessler contributed to this report.
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