Iron County Sheriff David W. "Dude" Benson will face a felony charge of obstruction of justice for allegedly giving false information to investigators looking into claims that his office had mishandled county funds.

The Utah Attorney General's Office filed the charge in 5th District Court in Cedar City Tuesday. Obstruction of justice is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

Benson was served with a summons, booked into jail and released on his own recognizance Tuesday afternoon, a jail employee said.

Iron County commissioners also placed the sheriff on paid administrative leave Tuesday, pending the adjudication of the criminal charge. Such a leave is required under the state's malfeasance in office law, which applies to all elected officials.

Salt Lake attorney Ed Brass, who represents Benson, declined any comment, saying he had not yet seen the charges. Benson is set for his first court appearance Aug. 8.

A telephone message left at Benson's home was not returned Tuesday night.

Benson had placed himself on paid leave in late April, shortly after Iron County began an investigation into allegations that five checks totaling approximately $2,900 were cashed and missing from sheriff's office accounts. Iron County attorney Scott Garrett turned the investigation over to the state Attorney General's Office. The state's investigation is continuing and other allegations are being investigated, spokesman Paul Murphy said.

On Monday, Benson attempted to return to work, but he arrived to find the county had changed the locks on the doors to his office. He also promoted some deputies and demoted others, a statement from the Iron County Commission said.

"The actions taken by Sheriff Benson hastened the filing of a third-degree felony obstruction of justice charge," the statement issued late Tuesday said.

Mark Gower will continue as interim sheriff.

Before charges were filed, Benson defended his service to the county since being elected as sheriff in 1999, running a full-page advertisement in Tuesday's Daily News in Cedar City.

"I took the office by storm, doing at all times and in all places what I thought was best for the Iron County Sheriff's Office and of the people we serve, not realizing the 'political consequences,' " Benson wrote. "And I believe that I served with honor."

Benson goes on to say the policies and procedures laid out for his office are not applicable in every situation, and that he had asked for help from other elected county officials in handling financial matters that Benson found questionable.

Benson has said that he brought bookkeeping problems to the attention of the county commission three years ago. He said he believed that nothing illegal had been done, but that mistakes had been made by both the sheriff's office and other county offices.

"In some cases, help was offered. In others, I was left alone to make decisions regarding appropriate use of your sacred taxpayer dollars, and I did what I thought was right, what had been done before," he wrote.

Benson's statement also suggests that for some, county politics has become more important than the safety of residents. He wrote that some in government want him out of office and he would likely not have been charged with any crime had he simply resigned.

The commission's statement acknowledged limited information about the investigation has been released. But officials have been quiet to "protect the integrity of the investigation along with any individuals involved."

Iron County's undersheriff, Lt. Chuck Mitchell, has also been on leave since April, leaving two weeks before Benson. Mitchell will remain on leave pending the outcome of the investigation, his attorney, Keith Barnes, said.


E-MAIL: jdobner@desnews.com