Former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson loses battle to keep investigations private

Former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson loses battle to keep investigations private
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Agriculture Commissioner Kerry Gibson speaks during a 1st Congressional District Republican debate at KUED on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

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

A criminal investigation that stretched from fall 2017 to May 2018 scrutinizing allegations that former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson had misused government resources for his own benefit ultimately yielded no charges.

Investigators looked at whether Gibson diverted resources from a federally funded river project, the case of an employee who said she was asked to collect political donations on the job, and if a political action committee event held at Ogden’s airport violated the law.

Although none of the allegations resulted in charges, Gibson, fearing that he and his family would be embarrassed by the investigation, waged extended court battles to keep its contents and findings secret — and managed to do so for more than three years.

A unanimous Utah Supreme Court ruling in August 2021 determined that Gibson lacked standing under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to block the release of the records based on his larger constitutional right to privacy.

During Supreme Court arguments March 5, David Reymann, an attorney with the Salt Lake City-based firm of Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, said that public release of potentially embarrassing information happens all the time.

“If you gave unlimited appellate rights to anybody who disagreed or said, ‘I’m going to be embarrassed by these allegations,’ you’d be tied up just like this case has been, in years of litigation where the public is denied the right to know about allegations of misconduct against someone who’s running for Congress.”

A history in public office

Gibson, a dairy farmer by profession, served in the Utah House before his two terms as a Weber County commissioner.

Since then, he has maintained an active political career. He was hired as deputy director for Utah’s Division of Natural Resources for a brief stint and was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert in April 2019 to serve as commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

He left that job in January 2020 to run for Utah’s 1st Congressional District seat. Gibson was eliminated from that race in the June primary.

When asked why he fought so hard to keep the records secret, Gibson texted the following:

“Multiple agencies reviewed the credibility of these allegations and found them untrue. I have always maintained that this smear campaign was completely false. They were designed to damage me politically, but have only exposed the lack of credibility of those who dishonestly orchestrated this coordinated attack.

“Unfortunately this kind of attack is all too common in politics, but terrible and disenfranchising nonetheless. The message, if you want to run for public office and serve your community, beware. A political foe or disgruntled employee can make an accusation, and even if it’s false, they will still attack your family and drag your name through the mud.”

Gibson’s brief time heading up Utah Agriculture and Food was marked by whistleblower complaints that culminated in a scathing state audit. Its 12 findings included questionable and improper uses of government resources and employees.

Insufficient evidence

The investigation into the allegations against Gibson was conducted by the Ogden Police Department who handed it over to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings to look for criminal charges. Rawlings concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gibson had misused taxpayer resources.

One of the allegations that led to the investigation was the assertion that Gibson used employees working on the federally funded Weber River Project to do extra work on Gibson’s farm, outside the project’s scope. The river project was launched after the Weber River breached its banks in spring 2011 and flooded several nearby farms and homes.

By phone recently, Rawlings said the decision not to prosecute the river project allegations became simple “after we got to the bottom of it.”

After receiving the investigation from Ogden police, Rawlings said his office put significant time and energy into the case. And prosecutors realized the person in charge of the project from the Army Corps of Engineers had not been interviewed. So they contacted him.

“What we were told is simply that the Army Corps of Engineers was in charge of the project, not Kerry Gibson,” including regular inspections and oversight of expenditures, Rawlings said. “This was why there was no criminal case on Kerry Gibson to be had.”

In the original complaint, Kevin McLeod, who served as assistant director of Community Development in Weber County under Sean Wilkinson, said that county roads department employees brought concerns to them concerning Gibson.

When Rawlings called McLeod with more questions, McLeod told him he believed what these employees had said, “that there was inappropriate work done on Gibson property — additional work that they were asked or told to do by Gibson that wasn’t included as part of the river project, or at least shouldn’t have been.”

But for every witness questioning the work done on Gibson’s farm, there were those who spoke up for Gibson, saying he received no special treatment during the course of that project.

McLeod expressed doubts about whether the probe went far enough.

“The investigation barely cut the surface of what really happened,” McLeod said. “I don’t understand not looking deeper into what I think are some pretty serious allegations.”

Employee says she was asked to collect donations on the job

Prosecutors declined to file charges on another set of allegations, this time related to a county employee being asked to collect campaign donations.

Interviews conducted by Ogden Detective Rick Childress in the 50-page document, however, indicate that former Weber County Commissioner Matthew Bell, also a former chairman of the Weber County Republican Party, believed Gibson crossed a line.

Holin Wilbanks, a former Weber County employee initially appointed to conduct public relations in 2014 for the three-member commission, had expressed concerns to Bell and others about being asked as part of her job to collect campaign donations for Gibson.

Childress asked Bell what he thought the problem with that might be, and Bell responded: “I think it would be totally unethical. Now is it illegal? … I don’t know that.”

Utah’s state employee regulations prohibit political activity on the job, and Weber County’s code of conduct bans “soliciting political support or contributions using county employees, funds, time or equipment.”

The document also revealed that former Weber County Commissioner James Ebert had similar misgivings about Wilbanks collecting campaign funds on the job.

“She reported to me that she was extremely uncomfortable because she’d been asked on occasions to go ask businesses for campaign donations for Kerry,” Ebert told Childress.

Both Bell and Ebert instructed Wilbanks to halt any campaign activity on the job. At the time, Wilbanks had a public relations role that meant that she worked variable hours, including some weekends, interfacing with business leaders at events held throughout the county.

The wide-ranging investigation that Childress conducted was eventually turned over to prosecutors in a neighboring county for them to screen for possible criminal charges.

In reference to allegations of collecting campaign contributions on the job, Rawlings, the Davis County attorney, said by phone that he and Deputy County Attorney Rick Westmoreland considered every section of pertinent state law as they searched for sufficient evidence to file charges that would sustain a conviction.

“Westmoreland interviewed the [human resources] director at Weber County,” Rawlings said. “Holin cooperated and gave us information. But from the documents themselves, there was no way to prove the crime had been committed.”

Scrutinizing a PAC

The released records show Childress also dug into the Northern Utah Leadership Political Action Committee that Gibson and former state Rep. Brad Dee established in 2013.

Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell also signed on as a third member of that PAC, which still functions today, though it hasn’t reported taking any new contributions since 2016. Campaign finance disclosures through the years indicate the PAC collected contributions and contributed heavily to Republican candidates.

In October 2015, the PAC hosted a fundraiser at Ogden’s airport that Childress investigated.

Childress found an email documenting the “Northern Utah Fall Jubilee.”

The email, sent from [redacted] to [redacted], asks for financial support for the PAC, saying, “We hope you will join us and invest in quality leadership on Oct. 22, 2015 for an evening of food and entertainment at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport.”

A flyer about the event asked recipients to RSVP to [redacted].

Childress indicated those documents could be significant.

“The records contained in this packet support the conduct described by [redacted] during my interview with her,” Childress wrote in the investigation report.

He also wrote that the report’s findings indicated “sufficient evidence that warrants prosecutorial review.” He recommended scrutinizing Utah’s election law “to determine if that conduct falls within the elements of those statutes.”

To Davis County’s Rawlings and Westmoreland, the questionable campaign collections presented a tougher call than the other incidents.

“There was a lot of commingling. A lot of the events were legitimate county outreach events where campaigning stuff was also taking place,” Rawlings said. “The closest we came to prosecuting was that one, but there were good reasons we felt we couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gibson was having her commit criminal activity.”

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