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Inside the spending habits of Unified Fire Authority leaders

SALT LAKE CITY — Apple watches. Special-edition rifles. Bluetooth boomboxes. Six-night hotel stays. Pricey steak and seafood dinners.

These are all purchases former Unified Fire Authority Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott made on taxpayers' dime over the past several years, according to Unified-issued credit card statements, obtained by the Deseret News through public records requests.

They're among the same records now under scrutiny by two separate audits investigating compensation and credit card spending within Utah's largest fire agency. The audits — one commissioned by the Unified Fire Authority Board, and another launched by Utah Auditor John Dougall — were spurred by allegations of abuse of public funds.

Scott's questionable purchases now add to controversy that has swirled around the agency over $400,000 in incentives paid to the chief, his deputy and two other top administrators over the past five years.

Scott and his boss, Chief Michael Jensen, both recently left their positions. The deputy cited health reasons for his departure, and Jensen, who served as chief for seven years, has declined to elaborate on whether his exit was a result of the investigations.

But just what exactly are they leaving behind?

During the past 5 ½ years, Jensen has charged about $51,000 to his department credit card. His deputy, however, more than doubled that, with charges amounting to nearly $110,000 — all approved with Jensen's signature.

While Scott did not respond to requests for comment, Jensen said each expenditure was appropriate for the agency.

"I would go through, get the receipts, ask why they were purchased. He would have a legitimate reason why — a benefit to UFA," Jensen said. "What I've always tried to do is surround myself with competent, good people who do their jobs well. You trust them to do their jobs."

But members of the Unified Fire Authority board say the pending audits are meant to determine if the charges were in fact proper and whether policies need to be adjusted to tighten spending of public money.

"Clearly there are questions whether those transactions were prudent," board Chairman Christopher Pengra said. "But we want to be careful, act responsibly and reserve judgement to some degree until we understand fully what each of those charges were and for what reason they were made."


Scott visited Best Buy or the Apple Store several times a month, purchasing thousands of dollars in Apple products and other tech accessories.

In May 2014, he spent $720 at Best Buy on two bluetooth boomboxes, USB cables, power adapters and other accessories, listing himself and Jensen next to the charge on his credit card report with no other explanation.

Between October and November 2014, Scott spent another $915 on a variety of other accessories, and then spent another $675 on iPhone, iPad and other Apple supplies between January and April 2015.

In June 2015, he bought two Apple Watches for $2,455. One month later, he bought a pair of Apple computers, cases, charging cables and a hard drive for about $4,800.

Jensen said Scott was often responsible for purchasing and supplying phone chargers, cases and other tech supplies to other firefighters. He said the Unified information technology department said he could just purchase the supplies with his credit card because it would be the same price as buying through the department, and he was required to submit the serial numbers of products so they could be tracked.

The chief also said the Apple Watches were for himself and Scott, so they could receive notifications about emergencies with more ease. Phones, he said, sometimes aren't noticed if they're in a pocket.

Jensen said the computers were also for himself and Scott to replace aging and virus-riddled PCs.

Upon his resignation, Scott returned a variety of products, according to an inventory list obtained from the Unified Fire Authority. The list included an iMac computer, three iPads, an iPhone 6, a MacBook Pro Laptop, a GoPro camera, wireless earbuds, two Nikon DSLR cameras, seven camera lenses, seven iPhone cases, three iPad Mini cases, five iPhone docking stations and dozens of other iPhone accessories.

Those products, however, weren't kept in Scott's office. The full inventory — made up of more than 100 products — were returns from either Scott's house or his car, according to Micayla Dinkle, Unified administrative assistant.

Also among those items were a pair of custom rifles: a .22-caliber and a .30-30-caliber.

Scott bought the rifles in March 2012, according to his statements, for $2,335.

The guns, Jensen said, were prizes for a "burn camp" raffle, a fundraiser for burn victims.

"We support burn camp. We support it every year," he said.

Jense said the guns remain in their boxes, however, because they were never used for the raffle. The chief said that's because the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, occurred shortly before the fundraiser, and it seemed inappropriate to raffle off the guns.


Scott appears to have mostly outspent his boss through travel expenses — trips, Jensen said, that were for various firefighter conferences.

"He did travel more than I did. I travel a little bit, but not a ton," Jensen said, noting that some conferences could span several days, and perhaps longer if they included special training.

While Jensen would typically travel for conferences two or three times a year, Scott would, some years, take four, five, even six trips.

In 2013, Scott traveled to St. George, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Park City, Chicago and Bethesda, Maryland, racking up more than $6,500 in gas, flight, hotel and conference registration fees.

The trips, according to the statements, were for Winter Fire School in St. George, a fire department instructors conference in Indiana, a tour of the Phoenix fire department, a Utah State Firemen's Association conference in Park City, the Fire Rescue International Conference in Chicago, and Urban Search and Rescue Conference in Maryland.

In 2011, he spent more than $11,500 on five conference trips — for the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Seattle, Utah Fire Chiefs in St. George, Homeland Security in San Francisco, an EMS conference in New York City, and another International Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Atlanta.

Some trips, Scott would arrive days before the conference would start. In July 2012, for example, he spent $1,600 on a six-night hotel stay for an International Association of Fire Chiefs conference. According to the receipt for conference's $595 registration, the conference ran from Aug. 1-4, but Scott's stay extended from July 29 to Aug. 4.

Jensen said sometimes longer stays would be scheduled to counsel with other chiefs. Ultimately, he said Scott gathered valuable information from the conferences.

"We would go to study best practices from other departments," Jensen said, "bringing back benefit to Unified Fire Authority."

Ron Morris, president of Utah Fire Chiefs Association, a former Utah fire marshal and chief of the South Salt Lake Fire Department, said conferences are valuable, but fire officials have to weigh their worth with the cost to taxpayers.

"It's like any other profession: You either have to stay on the cutting edge or you fall behind and it ends up costing the taxpayers more money," he said. "But there's a very fine line between too much and not enough of conferences. The budget drives it."

Morris said most fire departments in Utah send their chiefs and deputy chiefs to one, maybe two conferences a year. That, however, can vary depending on the department's budget, he said, and the Unified Fire Authority ran on a $50 million budget last year.

More than three conferences a year, however, seemed atypical to Morris, especially for a deputy chief.

"I would think that would be a lot for the deputy to go to. I would think he'd delegate some of those out to assistant chiefs," he said, noting that assistant chiefs are more hands-on.

"Quite honestly, there are some red flags there," Morris said of Scott's travel records.


Among other frequent charges to Scott's card were regular lunches or dinners with board members and other representatives from various cities the Unified Fire Authority services.

While some meals varied from $50 to $80 at Rio Grande Cafe, Applebee's or Sampan, others occasionally hit triple digits. Sometimes the meetings were held at steakhouses, including LongHorn Steakhouse, Market Street Grill, and the New Yorker.

One meeting in particular, in June 2011 at Market Street, cost $260 with eight prime rib dinners and two shrimp platters for eight Unified officials. In August 2013, a six-person meeting with Saratoga Springs administrators at the sushi bar Tsunami cost $127.

Jensen said he could see why taxpayers might question paying for expensive dinners for Unified leaders, but he said the eateries were often chosen by the people they were meeting with.

"The people who wanted to meet with us, they're the ones who would say, 'Just meet us at this location.' So we'd go to that location," he said.

Pengra said he and other board members hope the audits will answer questions surrounding credit card, travel and meal expenses, but it will be up to the results of the audits to determine if any wrongdoing has occurred within Unified's top brass.

"We want to make sure that we understand what the policies were that either would have allowed or disallowed those purchases," he said. "Whether the transactions were right or wrong remains to be seen."

To Jensen, those questioning the spending shouldn't make premature judgements. He said he doesn't know "the motive" of those who submitted allegations of misuse of public funds to the state auditor.

"I would hope no one jumps to conclusions," the chief said. "I love UFA. I helped build it. I want to see what's best for it."

He said that's why, after talking with board members earlier this month, he agreed to a "mutual separation" from the agency.

"I think what's healthy for the organization was that they needed to move on and I needed to move on," Jensen said, though he indicated he believes he hasn't wronged the agency.

"I want the focus of the press and the public to be on the men and women of UFA," he said. "I don't want the spotlight taken off what they do. They save lives everyday."

Jensen, who is also a Salt Lake County Councilman, is up for re-election in November. He's running unopposed.

Last year, Jensen earned $153,568 in salary, $71,719 in benefits and $34,000 incentives from the Unified Fire Authority. For serving on the County Council, he received $51,300, bringing the total to more than $310,000.

Scott earned $138,976 in salary, $67,948 in benefits and $34,000 in incentives, totaling more than $240,000.

Jeremy Robertson, president of the Salt Lake County International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1696, which represents 90 percent of Unified's firefighters, said the agency's firefighters are "frustrated to be under the cloud of scrutiny brought by the current audits."

"Rank-and-file firefighters do not have any involvement in these purchases," he said. "They are focused on providing first-class services to the citizens we have sworn to serve."

Pengra said as the audits continue, he and other board members have confidence in Assistant Chief Mike Watson, who is now acting as interim chief.

"At this point, the leadership in place at UFA is doing a wonderful job sorting through these issues and moving us in a responsible direction," Pengra said. "I expect that we will see some very positive changes moving forward."


Twitter: KatieMcKellar1