SALT LAKE CITY — After a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, Unified Fire Authority leaders voted to move forward with possible litigation to recover at least $370,000 state auditors say the agency's former bosses misspent or improperly took as bonus pay.
"We … believe that our board was deceived in material ways, which justify our attempt to recover the money," said Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, who is chairman of the Unified Fire Service Area board.
The decision in a special joint Unified Fire Authority and Unified Fire Service Area meeting came after about an hourlong closed session, which resulted in a series of motions to hire outside legal counsel to advise on potential legal action for recovery of funds from former employees, including the agency's former chief, Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen, and his former deputy, Gaylord Scott.
Litigation may also include the agency's former legal counsel, Karl Hendrickson, and former chief financial officer, Shirley Perkins, who auditors say accepted improper bonuses, or "incentive" pay, approved by Jensen, according to a joint statement issued by the two boards.
"The board understands its responsibility to the public to ensure proper usage of all taxpayer dollars," the statement said. "As part of that responsibility, it must ensure that those who violate that trust be held accountable for such actions and that those actions cannot happen again."
It's not yet clear exactly how much money the agency will seek to recoup, but state auditors recommended Unified officials attempt to recover at least $370,000, which auditors said Jensen improperly approved as "incentive awards" to himself, Scott and the other two former fire administrators between January 2011 to December 2015.
That $370,000 doesn't include tens of thousands of dollars in "excessive" and "questionable" expenditures auditors said were spent by Jensen and Scott for travel, meals and technology items such as iPads, Apple watches, Nikon cameras and iMacs.
Agency leaders don't yet have a specific amount in mind, said Nile Easton, Unified Fire Authority's spokesman, but board members will use the state auditor's recommendations as a "starting point."
The vote came after state investigators last month released a 196-page report detailing the attorney general's findings of the investigation into the two chiefs, including interviews with dozens of witnesses who described concerns about misuse of public funds.
Prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges against Jensen and Scott after determining it would be "unlikely" that criminal charges would be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, citing a "loose" agency governance structure that ultimately approved "exorbitant bonuses, reimbursement for personal vacations attached to official travel, and purchase of electronic equipment for personal use," among other issues.
Jensen did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday morning.
Scott's attorney, Richard Van Wagoner, said he was not aware of the vote until reached by the Deseret News Tuesday, so he declined to comment until he could get more information.
Silvestrini declined to discuss the specifics of the closed-door session, but he did say board members discussed the state audit as well as attorney general's report.
"Based upon those we elected to at least explore the prospect of litigation," Silvestrini said.
"Prosecutors have to operate under a different burden of proof; they have to prove a case by clear and convincing evidence," Silvestrini added. "Whereas in a civil recovery, the burden of proof is less than that, so that's one reason why we think that we should proceed.
"We're concerned that the auditor's report indicated there was a misuse of public money, and it's our responsibility as board members to guard public taxpayer money, so we feel an obligation to do that," he said.
However, the decision wasn't unanimous. Board member, Reid Demman, who is also Salt Lake County surveyor, voted against the motion to engage legal counsel.
In an interview afterward, Demman said he worried litigation would drudge up an ugly past the agency has worked hard to put behind itself.
"I understand everyone's concerns, and there's a lot of valid points," Demman said. "But I think it's in the best interest of the agency to move forward and put this behind us."
Demman also questioned how much litigation would cost. No budget for outside counsel was discussed Tuesday. Silvestrini said that may be something that will be discussed at the board's next meeting in November, after speaking with attorneys.
Silvestrini noted the vote of the board reflected a near-unanimous belief it was important to pursue recovery of taxpayer funds.
"Boards like the (Unified's) board that are comprised of elected officials who serve part time, we rely on our command staff to be honest with us," Silvestrini said. "We have to have that in order for us to do our job right. When an official like that betrays the trust, in our opinion, we believe there should be consequences."