NORTH OGDEN — Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott says he doesn’t drive anymore. He worries he might hurt someone.
He says he doesn’t talk to his chief deputy — doesn’t know her that well, anyway.
He says he doesn’t “really” live in Salt Lake City. Or he does. Or doesn’t. Or does. His house is there, but he says he spends most of his time in North Ogden.
That’s because Karmen Sanone, one of his office aides — lives here. He says they’re “pretty much” married.
“Hell no,” he doesn’t want to resign from his elected office. He loves it.
How often is he at work in Salt Lake County? “Very little,” he says.
These are all roughly drawn conclusions from a recent 45-minute conversation with Ott — a difficult-to-interpret and at times bizarre conversation that occurred after a Deseret News reporter happened to find Ott standing practically on the side of the road in North Ogden in the middle of the afternoon on a recent Tuesday.
It was the first time the Deseret News was able to interview Ott without the presence of Sanone and his chief deputy, Julie Dole — whom county employees have accused of hiding Ott’s condition in order to stay in their appointed positions.
The reporter took the drive to Weber County — more than 50 miles north of Ott’s Salt Lake home — in an attempt to address speculation from county employees that the elected recorder isn’t actually living in the district he represents, but living up north with Sanone.
Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott's campaign vehicle is seen on the property of Karmen Sanone, Ott's office aide, and alleged girlfriend or wife, on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in North Ogden. County Council leaders and county employees have become increasingly concerned about Ott's well-being. | Katie McKellar, Deseret News
That’s what multiple sources have claimed throughout the time the Deseret News has investigated the perplexing questions surrounding Ott and whether he’s experiencing health problems that are preventing him from running his office. Those concerns are paired with allegations that he and Sanone have a nepotistic relationship.
Worries of Ott’s living situation, his relationship with Sanone, and concerns of his health have lingered for almost a year and a half, since the Deseret News first published its February 2016 investigation into Ott.
But recently, county employees' and council members’ concerns have mounted, with worries that the county recorder has become increasingly absent from his own office since January — adding to concerns that Ott’s health may be worsening.
Salt Lake County Council members and county employees — inside and outside of his office — say Ott’s attendance at the county government complex has dwindled and become more sporadic, particularly over the last several months.
County records obtained by the Deseret News through an open records request appear to corroborate those claims — although the data only tells a partial story.
Parking spots sit vacant in the underground reserved parking area under the Salt Lake County Government Complex in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 5, 2017. | Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News
Records of Ott’s key card scans to gain access to the county’s underground parking (typically reserved for elected officials and their administrators) show that Ott’s key card was only used on two days in January, one day in February, and not at all during March or April. Earlier records show he’d used it on a much more regular basis in 2015 and 2016.
Though the records appear to show a decrease in attendance, county facility officials admit that Ott could be entering the office at access points that don’t require a key scan, or he could be entering with Sanone or when others use their keys to open the doors.
An employee who works in the recorder's office said Ott's work attendance is "sporadic." Sometimes he shows up to the office once a month, sometimes once or twice a week.
Meanwhile, county council members and employees are becoming increasingly frustrated that Ott remains in his position, despite acknowledgment from county and state leaders that his situation calls for action.
The matter is now under study by state lawmakers who say the troubling situation has exposed a hole in state law, which provides no recourse if an elected official lacks the mental or physical capacity to continue carrying out his duties.
A bill was proposed earlier this year during the legislative session, but under worries that such a law could be used as a political weapon, lawmakers decided to take more time to craft a bill.
Investigations into Ott’s situation, however, are still ongoing, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill confirmed last week, though it’s still not clear what, if anything, can be done.
In the meantime, taxpayers have continued paying Ott as the county’s elected official responsible for overseeing the staff and budget of an office that tracks county records.
Last year, Ott received $189,404 in salary and benefits. The sum has grown slightly, from $186,277 in 2015.
Conversation with Ott
Ott has a house in Salt Lake City’s Bonneville Hills neighborhood, minutes away from his office at the Salt Lake County Complex. But visits to his home — last year and in recent days — raise questions.
Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott's overflowing mailbox is seen at his residence in Salt Lake City on Tuesday May 9, 2017. County Council leaders and county employees have become increasingly concerned about Ott's well-being. | Katie McKellar, Deseret News
The same day Ott was found in North Ogden, the mailbox at Ott’s Salt Lake home was overflowing with unretrieved mail. The lawn was overgrown and unmowed, the front window curtains drawn. Some neighbors have said they regularly see Ott, but others say they rarely see him.
Ott was spotted standing next to his truck in a parking lot on Sanone's property and near his customized campaign van that says, "Vote Gary Ott county recorder. Experience counts." The van's licence plates expired in 2015.
Ott smiled and engaged in conversation as if with an old friend, as opposed to previous encounters when he dismissed or avoided the reporter who had published stories about his health and competency.
Questions about why Ott was at Sanone’s house in the middle of a day on a Tuesday rather than at work, in Salt Lake County, produced cheerful but difficult-to-interpret — and at times strange — responses.
Deseret News:"Why are you up here in North Ogden?"
Ott: “Well, because the people ‘round here from there to here I’ve got stuff on. People that live there people that do stuff. It’s not very big …"
"Don’t you live in Salt Lake City?”
“Uh … not really.”
"Where do you live?"
“Up in Salt Lake.”
"I’m still confused. Do you live here in North Ogden or do you live in Salt Lake City?"
"You’re County Recorder, right?"
"So why aren’t you at your office today?"
“Because I’ve got everything put together.”
"'Everything’s put together?' What do you mean?"
“Well I mean I don’t … everything I need I filled it up and it’s waiting. That’s it. I mean the thing is, I enjoy what you’re doing and things you are doing. See I’m not really doing anything like that. …”
"But how often do you go to Salt Lake County?"
"Why not more often?"
“Because they’re doing it in another place. They don’t … they’re not here.”
"What do you mean they’re not here? I’m confused."
“I am, too, so we’re in good shape.”
Many of Ott’s answers were difficult to understand or were incoherent. Multiple times he said he was “working on machines” and directed the reporter’s attention to his white truck — the same truck he was found stranded in by police on a rural highway in Tooele County January 2016.
When asked if he drives the truck, Ott said he doesn’t.
"I’ve had some problems that I’m very careful with what I do," he said.
"How do you get to work if you don’t drive?"
"You walk to Salt Lake County?"
“To the places that I’m at. And then, the thing is, if you come into my place, I do take two or things of these things and do the job and get back together. It’s just simple. It is.”
When told that some people are worried about his well-being and haven't seen him much in his office, Ott's response was confusing.
"Those would be not a real, you know, I wake up every day and I do everything like that," he said.
Later, Ott was asked if he talks regularly with Dole, his chief deputy, who has said in the past that Ott instructs her on how to run his office.
Well I’ve been doing it long enough and can do it and do things like that. We’ve got some people out there that think they can take some things over and doing things like that,
"Who thinks they can take things over?"
“Oh I can't remember the name. They’re younger people, and I basically, I quietly say, ‘Well I don’t do that,” he said.
"I was just asking about Julie. Do you talk to her?"
"Julie Dole, your deputy? Do you talk to her?"
“Yeah, I don’t know her very well. I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Ott said.
At another point, the reporter asked about Sanone and what his relationship was to her. Ott said they were "pretty much" married.
When asked if Sanone was there that day, since it was her house, Ott said: "Not that I know of."
Shortly after, the reporter knocked on the door of the house. Sanone answered.
She said she and Ott had a “busy afternoon” because a friend of theirs had just died. When asked why Ott was at her house, Sanone said he visits occasionally but still lives in Salt Lake City.
“He doesn’t keep his clothes or anything here,” she said. “They’re all in Salt Lake. So he still lives in Salt Lake.”
Sanone insisted that Ott lives in his elected district.
“He still maintains a residence there. He still lives there. All his belongings are there,” she said.
When asked how often Ott comes to the office, Sanone replied: “When he feels like it.”
Regarding reports that some county employees and council members say they don’t see Ott sometimes weeks or months on end, Sanone responded, “You know, I hear the same thing about me, but I’m there all the time. If you’re in your office doing your job, people don’t see you.”
When told it’s difficult to understand Ott, Sanone said: “Well, we had a long talk this morning and he was coherent.
“You know,” she added, “he plays a game sometimes where he doesn’t want to answer questions, he acts like he doesn’t understand the question.”
Listen to the complete audio recording below:
Questions of Ott’s living situation are coupled with increasing concerns about his well-being, as well as frustrations that little has been done to address concerns about the recorder's competency.
County Councilman Sam Granato said he hasn’t seen Ott in months, even though he used to attend County Council meetings.
“I am concerned about Gary,” Granato said. “I’m concerned for Gary’s well-being, and I’m concerned for the citizens of Salt Lake County who voted for Gary and now he cannot perform his duties. And I’m concerned about what this is doing to county employee morale.”
“My biggest concern,” Granato added, “is nothing is being done.”
Ray Lancaster, a veteran county employee who is also president of the Utah Alliance of Government Employees union, says she hasn’t seen Ott since January.
“Yeah there’s low morale. There’s frustration,” she said. “When you walk into that office, there’s a vibe you can feel. The employees here are all aware of Gary’s situation. And it’s frustrating that it’s allowed to go on.”
Jeremy Roberts, a self-proclaimed concerned citizen who filed a formal complaint to the Salt Lake County district attorney last year calling for an investigation, has also become frustrated. He said in months past, when the investigation was in the attorney general’s office, he’d been in regular contact with investigators updating him on the investigation, but now all he hears is “crickets.”
“Nothing,” Roberts said. “And it’s been this long. It’s frustrating as hell, especially when you hear from people who do see him and try to talk to him. It wrecks your stomach. It makes you sick inside. Nobody knows if he’s OK.”
Citizens wait inside the general public area of the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 5, 2017. | Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News
Outside of the recorder’s office, county employees also haven’t forgotten, said Lisa Westover, who worked in the recorder’s office for 20 years before leaving in 2015 to work in the assessor’s office.
“There’s a ton of frustration,” she said, adding that concerns about Ott’s health became undeniable after the County Council last year questioned him following the audit into his office, and his befuddled answers were barely understandable.
“How can you continue to let a person who obviously cannot do his work keep collecting a huge paycheck?” she asked.
County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson said she hadn’t seen Ott for months before she happened to run into him outside an elevator at the county complex.
“Nothing about the interaction I had with him made me feel better about the situation,” Wilson said. “He didn’t seem to recognize me.”
County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she hasn’t seen Ott for months, even though independent elected officials often attend County Council meetings.
“First and foremost I’m concerned about Gary and his well-being,” she said. “If this man has an illness or anything else in his life going on that could put him in a vulnerable state, that concerns me. I don’t want people taking advantage of him. He’s a great man. He served for a lot of years.”
Newton said “the reality of the situation is” Ott is likely not living on a regular basis in Salt Lake County, but rather he’s spending most of his time in Weber County with Sanone — which she said opens a slew of other concerns, since elected officials are required by law to live within their elected districts.
“We’re all frustrated with the situation,” Newton said. “It’s not fair to taxpayers. It’s not fair to Gary. And it’s not fair to the good employees in the office who have a missing leader.”
Inside the office
Ott’s deputy, Dole, confirmed that Ott’s attendance has decreased lately.
“I don’t really track it,” she said, “but it has been less. He doesn’t really come in as often as he used to.”
When asked if she knows why, Dole said: “He never really said. He just comes when he wants to.”
Previously, Dole has said Ott has always been a hands-off boss, and he only comes into the office on an as-needed basis. But when asked if she denies the claim that there appears to be something wrong with Ott, Dole didn’t deny it.
“No, I mean I think there’s definitely something that’s probably age-related or whatever, but that’s nothing Gary is willing to talk about,” Dole said, declining to comment on Ott’s personal life. “So there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Dole said, as his deputy, she feels a “requirement to be loyal” to Ott, and even if she thought he should resign it’s not within her role to suggest.
“I cannot make Gary do anything. I was hired for the job that I do, and I do it, and that’s all I can do. I can’t make him do anything,” she said.
When asked if it bothers her to have a boss that isn’t coming to work, Dole said “the way election positions are set up, the elected can do what they want.”
“The people they appoint under them have job descriptions, so my job is very specific,” she said. “He has all the leeway in the world. I don’t.”
Julie Dole, Salt Lake County chief deputy recorder, shows examples of old books inside the vault of the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office in Salt Lake City, Monday, June 5, 2017. | Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News
When asked if that frustrates her, she declined to comment. But she did say she is frustrated for being “tossed under the bus” by the Salt Lake County Republican Party, who censured her last year, accusing her of being dishonest about Ott’s situation.
Dole said someday she wants to run for her boss' position. Ott's term ends in 2020.
One county employee who works within Ott’s office agreed to speak with the Deseret News, but only on an anonymous basis out of concern for violating Ott’s privacy.
The employee said Ott does still comes to work — sometimes once a month, sometimes once or twice a week — but his attendance is “sporadic,” and he rarely interacts with employees.
The worker added that when Ott is in the office, employees have “no clue” what he actually does. Everyone gets their direction from Dole, the employee said, and the fact that County Council members say they haven’t interacted with Ott for months adds to the frustration.
“As far as I know that’s what politicians do, meet with each other, lobbying for dollars for their office,” the employee said. “Yet I’m not sure Gary’s doing that. And that’s concerning.”
Most of all, the employee said recorder workers just wish the issue would stop hanging over their heads. It’s become an “unnecessary stress” and a “huge distraction,” particularly when reporters come to the office asking questions.
“Everything frustrates me,” the employee said. “I wish it were over — put to rest or dealt with.”
No solution in sight
Last October, District Attorney Gill confirmed his office was working with the Utah Attorney General’s Office investigating Ott’s situation. He said last week those investigations are still ongoing, and his team is looking into “all relevant issues,” including residency concerns.
“I have an attorney who is working through those issues,” Gill said. “But nothing is easy about it.”
Gill said so far his team hasn’t reached any conclusions, “but we probably will in the near future.”
“But as I’ve said before,” he added, “there’s a vacuum here in state law that needs to be addressed.”
That “vacuum” is the absence of any “clear mechanism” to address the issue of an incapacitated elected official, Gill said. But the question of whether an elected official is living outside his district is also a “legitimate concern.”
Portraits of past Salt Lake County recorders and wires hang on a wall in the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 5, 2017. | Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News
Under state law — which was updated this year — elected officials will automatically lose their positions if they live outside their district for more than 60 days in a row, unless they receive permission from their legislative body.
Gill also said Utah law has no specific hourly requirement for elected officials. As long as their offices are running smoothly, they’re technically fulfilling their elected duties.
Gill acknowledged the situation is frustrating and will take time to address.
“Look, the fact that we do not have clear mechanism to address this issue continues to do a disservice to an individual who may be impacted by those issues and concerns, as well as the taxpayers and citizens for whom the representative is supposed to serve,” Gill said.
“And anybody who supports that or conceals that does a double injustice to the taxpayers and citizens as well.”
County Council Chairman Steve DeBry said the council has “exhausted everything we can do to address the issue,” which entailed calling for an audit of Ott's office. The audit found that the office is running well, even though Ott appears to have little involvement.
“If we were to look at his office and see that the sky was falling, then we’d have something to sink our teeth into,” DeBry said. “And if there are charges or an investigation brings forward new information, that could change the paradigm. But until that investigation is complete, we don’t have anything to hang our hat on.”
The council, however, does hold the purse strings. In the past, some council members have floated the idea of cutting Ott’s salary, but DeBry said he isn’t certain if that would address the core problem — which is the concern about Ott’s well-being.
“We need to have a legislative fix for this,” DeBry said. “Frankly, this is an unprecedented situation in the state of Utah.”
“We don’t take this lightly and we are concerned,” he said. “We’re keeping a sharp eye for developments as they occur.”