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Audit of embattled S.L. County Recorder's Office nearly finished

Amid questions of Gary Ott's fitness for duty, county officials hope for answers

Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott sits with Chief Deputy Recorder Julie Dole, left, and governmental affairs liaison Karmen Sanone during a Salt Lake County Council meeting on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. During the meeting, council members voted on a new ne
Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott sits with Chief Deputy Recorder Julie Dole, left, and governmental affairs liaison Karmen Sanone during a Salt Lake County Council meeting on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. During the meeting, council members voted on a new nepotism policy.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's been almost five months since questions about Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott's ability to fulfill his elected duties first surfaced, and since then the matter has remained in limbo.

But soon, county officials hope for some answers, or at least some direction.

In April, the County Council ordered an audit of Ott's office in the wake of a puzzling incident this winter, when police found a shivering and incoherent Ott wandering along a rural highway west of Tooele on a frigid January night.

Soon after police reports of that incident came to light, concerns mounted when county workers claimed that worries about Ott's health have lingered for years, even before Ott's re-election campaign two years ago, the Deseret News first reported in February.

The police reports — coupled with a 2015 investigation and allegations from county employees — raised the same core question: Is Ott really running his office?

Could he be suffering from health concerns that are preventing him from doing his $180,000 taxpayer-paid position? Could his top administrators be filling in for him, covering for his condition to stay in their appointed positions, as alleged by some county workers?

Those are claims that Julie Dole, Ott's chief deputy recorder, and Karmen Sanone, Ott's governmental affairs liaison, both deny.

Court documents, police reports and other accounts have also identified Sanone, one of Ott's right-hand administrators, as his fiancee, girlfriend or wife. She and Ott have declined to discuss any personal relationship between them.

Now, after nearly four months of work, the audit into Ott's office is slated to be completed sometime around the end of July, according to Salt Lake County Auditor Scott Tingley.

"We've finished up the field work," the auditor said. "That's completed. Now we're preparing the report and just tying up loose ends."

Taxpayer 'watchdog'

It's not clear, however, how many questions the audit will be able to answer.

That's because it's strictly scrutinizing the office's performance — from operations to budgeting — and not specifically Ott's health.

By law, there is no mechanism in place for elected officials to evaluate each other's capabilities. Voters are left to make those evaluations.

Under a specially extended term, Ott won't be up for re-election until the end of 2020.

"We're not mental health professionals, so it's kind of inappropriate for me to comment on (Ott's health)," Tingley said.

However, the audit will be scrutinizing "management structure," he said.

"I'm the watchdog over taxpayer money for Salt Lake County, so I want to provide assurance to the taxpayers and voters of Salt Lake County that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and not misappropriated," Tingley said.

The auditor declined to comment on any findings of the audit until the report is published.

County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she hopes the audit will help the council address the "accusations that we don't have a full-time recorder in the office right now and that he's not able to fulfill his duties."

"I hope to see if there are any issues in the office and what the impact may be if that is the case," she said.

Until then, the County Council has been waiting to see what the audit yields.

"As soon as the auditor's finished, we hope to get it on the council agenda immediately thereafter," Newton said.

In response to phone calls and emails requesting comment on the pending audit, an email sent from Ott's account said he's "not interested in interviewing" with the Deseret News.

Dole, however, said she doesn't think the audit will reveal any problems within the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office.

"We don't have any issues," she said. "We're operating well like we always have been. If anything, the only thing is hopefully it will show that we're understaffed and underfunded."

When asked how the office has been since the audit was commissioned, Dole said: "Besides the fact that we need some overtime because they're taking our people away from their work, everything's been great."

Asked whether Ott has been in the office or how his health has been, Dole said she doesn't "deal with his health" and that he's in the office "when he wants to be."

"Gary sets his own schedule and comes to meetings as he chooses," she said. "He's usually in three or four days a week, more if he needs to. It just depends on what his meetings are or whether they're off site."

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams — who supported the council's decision to commission the audit of Ott's office, stressing the need to strike a balance between Ott's privacy and ensuring wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars — said he looks forward to seeing the audit's results.

"We're all concerned about what's been raised about the recorder's health and ability to perform his job functions, and we want to see if those concerns are justified and hope the audit might shed some light on that," the mayor said.

Nepotism allegations

Ordering the audit is the second action the County Council has taken to address public concerns about Ott. That's because allegations haven't stopped at concerns about his health; they've also extended to nepotism.

County workers, Facebook posts and court documents have identified Sanone as Ott's fiancee, girlfriend and wife, the Deseret News reported in April.

In wake of those reports, the County Council strengthened its nepotism policy, requiring a supervisor involved in a relationship with a subordinate to report it to his superior or to human resources. Human resources would then recommend reassigning positions.

However, county officials acknowledged that they have little authority over other elected officials, and that it's incumbant on those involved to actually report any personal relationship.

Sanone has continued to work in Ott's office. She has declined to discuss whether she is in a relationship with Ott, and when asked if she would need to report anything to human resources under the new policy, she said she and Ott weren't "violating any policies, current or future."

When asked last week if Ott or Sanone had reported any relationship, Human Resources Director Michael Ongkiko declined to comment, citing personnel confidentiality issues.

Ray Lancaster, Salt Lake County union president — the first county worker to speak publicly about the concerns over Ott's health and the alleged relationship with Sanone — said the county has been "very quiet" during the time the audit has been underway.

"Everything has been business as usual," she said. "We're just waiting."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1