The Provo City Council's former attorney says he was fired last week because he advised city officials not to listen to Councilwoman Shari Holweg's tapes.
But Mayor George Stewart thinks it's a snow job.Michael Thornton issued a statement Thursday defending his actions in the tape-recording matter, which has broadened an already significant schism between Holweg and Stewart.
Thornton said his contract with the city was terminated May 29 by order of City Attorney Gary Gregerson because Thornton told the City Council's vice chairman, Karl Thalman, not to listen to the tapes. The council hired Thornton in 1992 because it didn't want to rely on the administration's attorney, believing his advice to be biased toward the mayor's office. The current council later allowed Thornton to work under Gregerson.
Stewart obtained Holweg's tapes in which she recorded telephone conversations with others without their consent. The mayor then played the tape recordings for some council members. Holweg's brother, David Gardiner, gave the recordings of private conversations to Stewart.
The other members of the City Council signed a statement condemning the practice of taping conversations, even though the practice is perfectly legal. State law allows private conversations to be taped as long as one party consents.
Thornton's statement, authored by friend and fellow Provo attorney Randy J. Christiansen, stopped short of saying Stewart acted illegally by listening to the tapes and allowing City Council Executive Director Ted Dowling to listen to them as well.
However, Thornton said, there could be legal implications for the mayor if Gardiner stole the tapes.
"Certainly if there is stolen property and someone comes into possession of it, there's reason for concern," Thornton said.
Stewart said Thornton is trying to direct attention to the mayor's actions and away from Holweg's taping activities. Thornton and Holweg are allies, Stewart said.
"The claims made by Mr. Thornton in his press release are not consistent with the facts as explained to me by both the city attorney and the council office," Stewart said.
Holweg did come to Thornton's defense Friday. "Michael Thornton was the only member of the administration or council who acted ethically at the time and he got fired," she said.
Thornton said he decided to issue his statement in response to what he called inaccurate allegations in a newspaper article published Thursday that said Thornton was fired "for allegedly betraying a confidence and lying about it afterward." The article cited unnamed city government officials as sources for the information.
Christiansen said city officials incorrectly called Thornton's cautions against listening to the tapes "a breach of confidence." The city also alleges Thornton refused to give officials "a straight answer" about his warnings not to listen to the tapes, Christiansen said.
"In actuality, Mr. Thornton did not owe them or anyone he believed was attempting to further or cover up the mayor's activities an answer, and whatever they allege as a basis for termination is hereby denied," the two attorneys said in the statement.
Gregerson has refused comment on the circumstances surrounding Thornton's termination.
Thornton became a permanent employee of the city attorney's office in February. In his previous three years on the job, he had worked at the entire seven-member council's discretion. But some council members earlier wanted him to report only to the council chairman and Dowling, the executive director. Holweg said Thornton wasn't comfortable with that.
Thornton believed he had to work alone or work under another attorney to be effective, Holweg said.
In allowing Thornton to work under the city attorney, the council gave up its right to decide whether to retain him.
Councilman Karl Thalman said Friday he doesn't know exactly why Thornton was fired. But he believes the council attorney should report to the council, not the administration.