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Board calls for criminal investigation of former Unified fire chief, deputy

Councilman Michael Jensen takes the oath of office from County Clerk, Sherrie Swensen as Salt Lake County holds their Inauguration ceremony at the Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. The Unified Fire Authority's board voted unan
Councilman Michael Jensen takes the oath of office from County Clerk, Sherrie Swensen as Salt Lake County holds their Inauguration ceremony at the Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. The Unified Fire Authority's board voted unanimously Thursday to call for criminal investigations of the agency’s former chief and his deputy.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MIDVALE — In the wake of a scathing state audit that reported potential misuse of public funds, the Unified Fire Authority's board voted unanimously Thursday to call for criminal investigations of the agency’s former chief and his deputy.

Former Chief Michael Jensen and his deputy, Gaylord Scott, both resigned last year, though neither cited investigations into their compensation and spending practices as reasons for resigning.

Jensen currently serves as a Salt Lake County councilman.

The board’s vote followed the recommendations of the Utah state auditor’s report released last week, which concluded that Jensen and Scott put their personal interests over the agency's interests through questionable spending and compensation packages.

"As a board, we recognize the seriousness of the allegations of criminal laundering in the state auditor's report," said board member Jeff Silvestrini, who is also the mayor of Millcreek. "We believe the allegations should be pursued consistently with the auditor's recommendations of criminal prosecution."

Additionally, the Unified Fire Authority board and the Unified Fire Service Area board voted unanimously to file an ethics complaint with the Utah State Bar against the agency's former legal counsel, Karl Hendrickson, who resigned from his position with the Unified Fire Service Area last week.

"The board, as indicated by the action today, takes the state auditor's recommendations very seriously," said the board's vice chairman, Eagle Mountain Mayor Christopher Pengra, noting that the board has also committed to publishing a tracking document on Unified's website so the public can monitor the agency's progress on addressing all of the audit's recommendations.

Scott could not be reached Thursday, but Jensen deferred his comments about the board's actions to what he told the Deseret News last week: that the audit's findings were "imbalanced" and mischaracterized his actions as Unified's chief.

Jensen also complained that he wasn't able to provide a written response within the audit or see its findings until it was released to the public.

"The audit only had one side of the story and didn't represent what I did at (Unified) or my time as chief," he said.

When asked if he plans on retaining an attorney, the former chief said he's preparing his responses to the audit and reviewing his options.

Jensen has also said he intends to continue serving on the Salt Lake County Council.

As a result of last week's audit, County Auditor Scott Tingley said he plans to launch a "deep dive" audit into the expenses of Jensen and other County Council members.

Unified's new chief, Dan Petersen, said the board's decision will help restore the public's trust in the agency, as well as improve employee morale.

"(Employees) feel hurt, they feel let down by what the audit says and what their experience has been," Petersen said. "They want to be proud again to go to a neighbor's barbecue and not have someone talk about (Unified) in a negative way because their service has never dipped."

The board also voted to seek legal recovery of all funds that the audit says Jensen and Scott improperly received or spent — to the tune of at least $370,000 that Jensen allegedly approved improperly as "incentive awards" to himself, Scott and two other former fire administrators over the past four years, as well as tens of thousands of more dollars in "excessive" and "questionable" travel and Apple Store purchases.

Pengra said "no penny is off the table," and the board will seek recovery of all funds identified in the state audit "since it's come to be pretty clear that there are things that should not have happened."

The audit stated Jensen and Scott overspent Unified dollars on travel, including a weeklong baseball junket in Arizona and an extended trip to Anaheim that appeared to have little department work. Additionally, Scott spent more than $23,000 on technology purchases, including $15,000 at Apple for equipment the audit said was used "primarily for personal purposes or unallowable uses."

Thousands of pornographic images were also found on Scott's computer, according to the audit.

Utah State Auditor John Dougall has said it will be up to criminal investigators to determine whether Scott and Jensen will face any charges. He noted, however, that typically cases involving misuse of public funds exceeding $5,000 can lead to felony charges.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office will turn the case over to the Utah Attorney General's Office to investigate.