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Lessons from Gary Ott: A difficult beginning, a tragic end — and what’s next

SHARE Lessons from Gary Ott: A difficult beginning, a tragic end — and what’s next

SALT LAKE CITY — "There's reasons I can't do things, so that's what it's going to be."

That was Gary Ott's answer when a Deseret News reporter first asked him to address questions about whether he'd been having trouble with his memory during an interview at the state Capitol in February last year, flanked by his top staffers, Julie Dole and Karmen Sanone.

During that 2016 interview, Ott wouldn't answer questions about his office or how long he had been Salt Lake County recorder without turning to Sanone for assistance, who would answer for him.

That interview, along with concerns from county employees that Ott wasn't in charge of his own office or even his own faculties, led to the publication of the Deseret News' first investigative report into Ott's health and the accusations that Sanone and Dole were covering up his condition.

What followed was a cascade of events that would eventually lead to calls for his resignation, state-level conversations about whether Utah should have a law to remove mentally incapacitated elected officials, investigations into whether he'd been the victim of elder abuse and, eventually, a legal battle between his family and Sanone about who should be his legal guardian.

Yet just days after court hearings concluded and the matter fell into the judge's hands for a decision, Ott succumbed to Alzheimer's disease at age 66. His funeral is being planned for next Saturday in southern Utah.

Public spotlight

It was a tragic turn in a nearly two-year saga in which Ott's struggle played out in public, illuminating the complexities and hardships dementia patients and their loved ones endure. It also highlighted the responsibility a public figure has to his constituents and weaknesses in the system when something goes wrong.

In Utah, more than 30,000 people are suffering from Alzheimer's, with that number expected to grow by almost 60 percent in the next eight years, according to Jeremy Cunningham, spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association of Utah.

"I'm afraid that (Ott) will be remembered for the last years of his life," Cunningham said on Friday, noting that Ott was a friend of his. "It just goes to show you even to the most brilliant people, Alzheimer's is not a respecter of anyone."

Ott's story has raised questions of whether Utah should have a law to protect both elected leaders and taxpayers from situations when an elected official may not be capable of making decisions to help themselves or those they serve.

It's not clear what the next chapter will be in the tragic and complex story of Gary Ott — whether a legal battle between his siblings and Sanone will continue over his estate, whether Utah lawmakers will pass a bill to allow removal of incapacitated elected officials, and what, if anything, will come of investigations pending in Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill's office.

The family's attorney, Mary Corporon, said Friday Ott did not have a will, and Ott's siblings will be filing "a probate action in the near future."

Sanone said she "hoped" the matter didn't rise to another legal fight.

On the afternoon of his death, Ott's siblings called for "justice." Ott's brother, Marty Ott, said he's convinced Sanone and Dole — though they consistently deny the allegations — committed "fraud" and "conspiracy" and took advantage of Ott when he was vulnerable. He said Gill now has a case handed to him on a "silver platter."

Gill said Thursday his office's investigations are continuing, and that new information surfaced from last week's court hearing. He said his team is "monitoring" that information, and he promised if there is an "articulable violation, we will pursue that."

Still, questions have persisted about how and when Ott's health began declining, and how concerns about his health impacted his time as an elected official when he was earning about $190,000 in taxpayer-paid salary and benefits — which is why Utah journalists fought to keep last week's hearings open to the public.

While no one may ever know Ott's exact state of mind when he ran for re-election in 2014, it was revealed in last week's hearings that Ott was diagnosed with a form of progressive dementia as early as October 2013.

Just how much of an impact that diagnosis had on Ott's ability to think for himself when he was elected for another term, however, remains unclear. While county employees, friends and family testified in court he couldn't drive, read or give speeches as early as 2012, others said he was actively engaged in his campaign.

When did it all begin?

Eric Keller, a longtime friend and husband of Ott's former chief deputy, said he started noticing red flags in Ott's behavior even before Ott unsuccessfully ran for county mayor in 2012.

"He just wasn't himself," Keller said. "I could tell he was deteriorating."

Keller told of how Ott "stumbled" through a speech when he announced he was running for mayor and struggled to navigate when driving.

His wife, Tonya Keller, said Ott — who was once a "micromanager," reading "every word" in budgets and other office material — became "very scattered." She said when he filed his financial disclosures for the mayor's race, he was missing statements and checks, so she had to help him get the right information together.

Tonya Keller also said by 2013, Ott would "sign whatever you told him to sign."

Tonya Keller also said she was fired soon after she became "very vocal" about her intentions not to help him run for another term and after she made multiple suggestions to Ott that perhaps he should retire. About a month after she was fired, Dole was hired.

Ott's nephew, Jonathan Williams, also testified his uncle didn't recognize him when he saw him at a 2012 caucus night.

Yet Salt Lake County Assessor Kevin Jacobs, who at times helped put up signs for Ott during his 2014 campaign, said Ott seemed to recognize people at events and he would be engaged in conversations while shaking hands.

When Dole was on the stand, she pointed to pictures on her Facebook page, showing that Ott was actively participating in his 2014 campaign in meet-and-greets and parades. She said he still did his own speech at the 2014 convention.

Dole acknowledged Ott had trouble speaking as early as 2012, but she attributed it to his bout of shingles.

"I don't know if I would call it a speech impediment or a stutter with his shingles," she said. "But as long as you gave him time to get it out, he could get it out.

After Ott won re-election, he "needed to be prompted" to repeat the oath of office during his January 2015 swearing-in ceremony with Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, testified Dottie Sinfield-Ellis, an employee in the recorder's office.

But Swensen, who also testified in court, said she didn't see anything unusual during the private swearing-in. She called it "uneventful" and said she believed Ott knew what was going on when he took the oath.

A key issue in the court hearing was whether Ott was mentally aware of what he was doing when he signed a 2015 document nominating Sanone as his medical decision maker — the same day he was sworn in.

Dole witnessed the signing of that document, saying Ott brought it to her with a story of how his mother had fallen ill and that her health declined after Ott's siblings began making medical decisions for her.

Ott's physician Charles Richardson — who had suspected that Ott was suffering from dementia after complaining of headaches and trouble concentrating — said Ott likely didn't understand any complicated documents in 2015.

"I feel like it would be difficult for him to understand any complex documents given the symptoms at the time," Richardson said.

What's next?

Because the guardianship case was rendered moot upon Ott's death, the public will likely never know how 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck would have ruled and whether he believed Ott was competent when he signed the health care document in 2015.

Such a ruling might have helped determine how early Ott's mental decline began and the extent of his condition when he began his fifth and final term in office.

If any other determinations or findings are to be made, they lay with Gill's ongoing investigation.

While Heather Holbrook, with Adult Protective Services, testified that investigations into allegations that Sanone and Dole were exploiting or abusing Ott produced "inconclusive" results, it remains to be seen whether Gill's investigation may press charges, perhaps on fraud, as Marty Ott alleges.

Pressure on Gill may mount. Salt Lake County Republican Chairman Jake Parkinson said he's planning a press conference on Monday to call out Gill's "inaction."

Gill promised he would file charges if evidence allowed, but he noted that his office must "work within the parameters of the law and admissible evidence."

In the larger scheme of things, however, Gill — who was at the table with county officials who grappled with few legal options to turn to as Ott's story unfolded — said least one thing needs to happen to prevent further tragedy.

"We need to make sure we strengthen and change our laws so this kind of situation and tragedy never happens," Gill said in an interview the day he learned of Ott's death.

"The saddest thing that would come out of this is if we don't learn from this and we don't recognize we need to do everything we can so something like this doesn't happen again."

A panel of lawmakers this fall approved draft legislation for consideration in the 2018 session that would allow the removal of mentally incapacitated elected officials.

It's not clear how much political support the bill will garner, given that lawmakers in the past have expressed wariness on creating a law that could be used as a political weapon.

But at least to one lawmaker — the bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher — the issue is too important to ignore.

"At the end of the day, this is what I care about," Thatcher said when he presented the bill last month. "I care that (Ott's) condition was hidden from the public. I care that Salt Lake County came to us and specifically said, 'Please give us a tool to address this in the future and make sure nothing like this ever happens again."


Funeral services for Gary Ott will be held at the Cannonville LDS chapel in Garfield County at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28. Visitation will be from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Burial will be in the Tropic Cemetery.