Still reeling from the gasoline scandal that brought down County Auditor Craig Sorensen, Salt Lake County Republicans tapped a local businessman with no previous government experience to fill the vacant auditor's slot on the November ballot.
Sean Thomas, who has worked the past four years in investment banking, was named Saturday by the Salt Lake County Republican Central Committee to take Sorensen's place on the ballot.
And Thomas will be one of three names submitted to the Salt Lake County Council, which will select an auditor to serve out the remaining six months of Sorensen's term. The other two are David Beck, the current chief deputy auditor and acting auditor after Sorensen's resignation, and MacRay Curtis, a division chief with the state auditor's office.
"I thought the central committee expressed a great deal of faith and confidence in having a new face, someone from the private sector," Thomas said. "I appreciate their work and faith and confidence in me."
Thomas, 32, is not a certified public accountant, but he has a degree in accounting and 10 years' experience in investment management and investment banking. A native of Sandy, he returned to Utah four years ago and started Latter-Day Bride with his wife — a business she will continue to operate.
Besides working in the Salt Lake County GOP, Thomas' only political experience was an unsuccessful run for the Salt Lake County Council two years ago. He lost to Joe Hatch.
"I think Sean will be a great candidate," said Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman. "He is a bright young man with a lot of talent, and I believe he will win in November."
Thomas said he is not sure whether Saturday's win was a backlash against the entrenched establishment or that the committee just wanted a fresh face "to restore trust and integrity to the office."
"I am someone from outside government with the perspective of a small business owner," he said. "I have worked in the real world."
Workman agreed, saying the committee wanted "new people in there, someone with fresh thinking and forward thinking who could revitalize the office."
Thomas beat Beck by 74 votes in the second round of voting. Thomas hopes to replace Sorensen, who stepped down in the wake of criminal charges that he stole gasoline from the county. Workman's chief counsel Greg Curtis, who is also the House majority leader, and the county's chief financial officer Randy Allen also resigned when vehicle irregularities were brought to light.
"The scandal has reverberated throughout the whole state," said Workman, who appointed an independent panel to examine the county's policies. She said the panel, which will make its findings public in another month, is not connected to her or her campaign "in any way, shape or form."
The pervasive misuse of official vehicles seemed to be on the minds of central committee members, who chose Thomas over two candidates with nearly 50 years of combined government auditing experience.
"I will be a citizen auditor," Thomas said, pointing to his own experience in the private sector. "I will not be beholden to any bureaucracy or special interests. I want to serve people on the outside of government, not the inside."
Thomas said all the right things: He is an outsider unsaddled by the current controversies, he quoted former President Ronald Reagan freely, he poked fun of his own youthfulness and he promised change.
Beck represented more of the old guard. With 29 years in the county auditor's office, he campaigned on his experience, not only in the auditor's office but in running Sorensen's previous three campaigns. "There will be no learning curve," he said.
Beck and Thomas survived the first round of voting over Dick Jones and MacRay Curtis. Curtis has been a division chief for state Auditor Auston Johnson for the past 15 years and is responsible for auditing local governments around the state.
"It is time for a change," he said. "I am willing to take a new direction. We need to make sure we don't have have things going on with cars and cell phones and laptops. I will look for areas that can be cut and trimmed."
Jones spent much of his allotted time addressing what he called a smear campaign over something that happened 15 years ago. "I faced my problems and dealt with them," he said. "I have put my house in order and I will see that the (county) auditors earn your trust."
It was unclear what those problems were.
County Republicans were clearly angry that Sorensen had sullied the party's image, but they stopped short of slinging darts at Sorensen. The committee voted not to consider a resolution that would have condemned Sorensen's "criminal activities."