SALT LAKE CITY — A dustup at the Utah Department of Agriculture amid allegations of cronyism has led to the abrupt retirements of the state veterinarian and former deputy commissioner Kyle Stephens, who was with the agency nearly 40 years.

Dr. Bruce King and Stephens both left in May on the same day after being called into the office by new Agriculture Commissioner LuAnn Adams, who assumed her duties in February.

King said the departures came swiftly and without explanation.

"(Stephens) got terminated earlier the same day I did," he said. "I think the Department of Agriculture is going to regret letting Kyle Stephens go just because of his tremendous knowledge. He is a professional in every sense of the word."

King left the agency after a former employee asked for an investigation probing allegations of rampant cronyism in the department and assertions that King was inappropriately making money on the side.

Dr. Wyatt Frampton, a field veterinarian who worked for the agency for 19 years, said King was allowed to compete unfairly with other veterinarians and enjoyed "perks" not visited on other workers.

"I believe that this behavior by Dr. King was driven by cronyism and 'good old boy' mentality," Frampton said. "Commissioner Adams, I hope, will finally put an end to this once and for all.

"I am not motivated in trying to get my job back as I really love what I am doing now, but I do love the profession I am in and believe the state veterinarian should be ethically and morally sound and professional in dealing with the affairs related to animal health in the state of Utah," he said.

King said Frampton's assertions are just that — half truths that have been twisted by a disgruntled former employee with a long history of troublemaking.

For their part, Gov. Gary Hebert's office and the state agencies involved are staying mum on the issue other than to say "appropriate" action had been taken to resolve a personnel issue.

Adams released this statement at the request of media.

"One of my first tasks as the new Commissioner of Agriculture and Food was to evaluate key management positions and programs within the department," she said. "Since that time, I have observed an excellent work ethic by many within the department that is rooted in the traditions of rural Utah. With that said, some changes have been necessary to help improve agency performance. My office is committed to work for the betterment of Utah agriculture. We will continue to find ways to improve and move forward in promoting the mission of the department.”

Frampton said he was fired by the agriculture state agency in September and escorted by security from the offices after he confronted his superiors about their prolonged absences from the office and him having to fill that void. In March, he wrote to Herbert's office, raising allegations that include:

• King was allowed to commute from his home in central Utah to work in Salt Lake City for his 15 years on the job with the state agriculture agency using a fleet car, filling up with the state gas card.

• King entered into a private contract with the Bureau of Land Management while assistant veterinarian in Nephi to administer medical services to prison horses at the Gunnison correctional facility, raising the specter of double dipping.

• King performed private veterinary services on state government time.

Frampton said the BLM contract alone would have augmented King's salary by several thousand dollars a month and clearly represented a conflict of interest because in his state role, King could make decisions about the importation of horses into Utah and get paid for them at the prison on an animal-by-animal basis.

An external audit based on Frampton's complaint was conducted by the Department of Natural Resources, a sister agency to the agriculture agency. He was contacted by auditors for clarifying questions but said he has not heard back from them since.

King said he was visited by the auditors, but he was refused a copy of the audit by Adams. He denied any wrongdoing and said he never performed private services on state time.

"They treated me sort like a criminal," King said. "The key and salient point is to do veterinary work on your time, and I have never done any veterinary work on state time."

King added that he has had use of a state vehicle over the years because as the chief animal medical officer, he's expected to respond at any time on emerging or foreign animal disease emergencies. A few years ago at the onset of a deadly equine herpes outbreak in the state, King pointed out that he made dozens of phone calls in a response that spanned the weekend and was not guided by a punch clock.

"The auditors asked me if I worked 40 hours a week. I told them no. I work 50 to 60 hours a week," he said.

Both the Department of Natural Resources and the Utah Department of Agriculture refused to release the audit, citing personnel reasons.

Complaints by an agriculture producer led Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, to sponsor and get passed a legislative measure prohibiting the state veterinarian from practicing on the side for compensation and more clearly defining the role of that office.

"He felt like his dealings with the state were unfair," Menlove said, "and as we worked through this, it became clear the role of the state veterinarian was not clearly defined. He felt like the decisions were arbitrary and that concerned him."

Frampton said he believes Stephens was "asked" to retire after 39.5 years of service because he was part of a system that allowed the favoritism with King to persist and that system was crumbling with changes in top leadership. Former Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham retired in early January, and Adams' appointment to replace him became official in February.

"I don't know if (Stephens) approved it, but he did not do anything about it," Frampton said. "It is definitely a good thing (Adams) is cleaning house, but the question is: Why has this been allowed to go on for as long as it has?"

Frampton, who now teaches veterinary science, said he has no desire to return to the state agency now that leadership has changed, and he doesn't intend to sue.

"My biggest hope in this is that we get back to an ethical, professional state veterinary office that is not driven by cronyism and the good old boy mentality but by science and what is best for the animals of Utah," Frampton said.

King said he feels regretful about the departure of institutional knowledge from the agency, but he's going to continue in his role as the incoming president of the U.S. Animal Health Association and advise on matters pertinent to Utah.

"I think Dr. Frampton has done the agriculture community a disservice," he added.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16