SALT LAKE CITY — Provo is disputing allegations that it was negligent in hiring former Police Chief John King, or that it failed to respond properly to two reports of sexual misconduct by King before a third came to light.
“The allegations the plaintiffs make against the city are inconsistent with what actually occurred,” said Heather White, an attorney who is representing Provo, in a Thursday news conference at the Snow Christensen & Martineau law firm.
“The city does not have a culture of harassment or discrimination,” White said. “On the contrary, the city has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
Documents released Thursday shed more light on the city’s efforts to uncover details about King’s past before hiring him in late 2013, while other documents reveal Provo’s response to complaints made about King in 2014 and 2015.
In a lawsuit filed last month, five women associated with Provo’s police department accuse King of a broad range of sexual misconduct, including staring at their breasts, making inappropriate comments, uninvited touching, groping and, in one case, rape.
King resigned in March 2017 after the rape allegation, making his exit at the request of then-Mayor and current 3rd District Congressman John Curtis, even though Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill had declined to bring charges.
Plaintiffs allege that Provo was wrong to hire King in the first place, given that he had resigned suddenly from two out-of-state posts — once after a subordinate brought an allegation of sexual assault that led to a settlement.
And they allege that Provo leaders didn't respond adequately to two complaints made on their watch, and that Curtis gave the impression to police department supervisors that “Chief King’s power was unlimited, his actions unchecked, and any complaints against him would be ignored.”
The plaintiffs seek an undefined amount of damages and measures to prevent sexual misconduct in Provo government, while Provo has asked for the case to be dismissed.
Reached for a response to Thursday’s news conference, plaintiffs’ attorney Katherine Venti said Provo should be “taking responsibility and accountability for the actions of their chief of police, who they should not have hired and retained as long as they did.”
“The plaintiffs also strongly disagree with the city’s version of events expressed today,” she said.
King was the top choice to become Provo’s police chief after a national search that cost the city more than $10,000.
His vetting is said to have included interviews with references he provided. Employment and criminal background checks. A polygraph. A psychological evaluation. And a search of available media.
But that media search apparently missed a 2012 Baltimore Sun story in which King was reported to have been escorted from his office after a complaint from a Baltimore city employee.
A member of Provo’s seven-member hiring committee previously told the Deseret News that King explained his abrupt resignation as being the result of “conflicts with people.”
In fact, a female subordinate had accused King of sexual assault. The Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges against King, but the woman later won a monetary settlement with the city — just over a month before King was selected to become Provo's police chief.
White said Thursday that Provo was “not reckless in hiring John King,” and that “there was no information that should have alerted the city that there was any type of problem.”
Citygate Associates, a California firm hired by Provo to screen candidates for costs up to $13,000, has not responded to requests for comment.
Venti responded Thursday that she did not see how screeners could have missed those reports “when they appear to be easy to obtain.”
Documents provided Thursday in response to records requests show that city and Citygate officials might have missed the Baltimore Sun report, but they were given some pause by King’s earlier 2010 resignation as police chief in Gaithersburg, Maryland, after a closed-door session of the Gaithersburg City Council to discuss a personnel matter.
A summary of Citygate’s interview with King says he told interviewers he was asked to leave “upon the hiring of a new city manager” (even though the relevant city manager had been hired in September 2008, more than a year earlier).
“This will need to be carefully explored in a detailed background check,” Citygate reported.
A September 2013 email from Provo’s human resources office shows that city officials had red-flagged comments on a short Washington Post article that King had “pushed back against pay cuts” at Gaithersburg.
Was King a “‘union’ front man,” they asked Citygate? A Citygate employee responded: “I do not believe for a second that Mr. King is a front for union interests.”
Two of King’s references told Citygate that King was dismissed after serving a warrant on the city manager’s boyfriend. Documents provided Thursday to media don’t include any further interviews with Gaithersburg officials.
Gaithersburg officials contacted by the Deseret News have either declined requests for comment or not responded, and the Deseret News has been unable to reach the city manager for clarification on King's dismissal.
Provo and Citygate officials were apparently satisfied by the information they obtained, though. A November 2013 email sent by human resources to Curtis said that the background investigation had showed “No significant items,” and Provo extended its offer that month.
Both the plaintiffs and Provo agree that as long ago as July 2014, a dispatcher complained about alleged misconduct by King.
The dispatcher (the Deseret News does not typically name alleged victims of sexual harassment or assault) says she reported it to a supervisor, then again in an exit interview, and then again to a human resources employee, who only ever told her that Curtis had given King a “heads up” about his alleged behavior.
White said Thursday that, yes, the dispatcher told her supervisor King made her “uncomfortable when he looked at her chest,” but added that the dispatcher first instructed her supervisor not to report those claims.
Her supervisor’s notes, provided Thursday in response to a records request, say the dispatcher’s boyfriend was a police officer, and was putting in for another job with the department.
White said that a month later, after the dispatcher filled out an exit questionnaire in which she said King had made her feel “extremely uncomfortable and ultimately seeking to leave the room,” Provo officials launched an investigation to find out what she meant by that. Human resources notes indicate she told them King had looked at her chest and made inappropriate comments.
Curtis met with King in late September, and H.R. notes say that King “expressed shock and concern that the situation arose.”
“He intends to be more mindful and careful in the future,” Curtis reported to human resources.
White said the woman stayed on as a part-time dispatcher and had no further complaints. (Pay logs show she worked about 75 additional hours for Provo.)
Another human resources file says the dispatcher later reported that King had approached her after she made the complaint, and that “he’s still showing her that he ‘got away with it’ and is going out of his way to make her feel uncomfortable.”
The second formal complaint received by Provo was made through an anonymous survey of department employees in September 2015.
An employee wrote that King “has boundary issues with touching female employees who do not want to be touched.”
A few months later, the city was sent an anonymous email stating that King had been unprofessional with a dispatcher. City officials say the author refused to provide evidence for the claim, though.
Documents released Thursday include a December 2015 email exchange between that emailer and a Baltimore Sun reporter, which was printed out and sent by mail that month to Provo’s human resources office.
The emailer — known to be the father of a Provo police officer who he believes was wrongfully fired for unrelated reasons — asked the Sun reporter if he had heard what led to King’s dismissal in Baltimore.
The reporter replied that he had heard about the allegations off the record, but not “to a level that could be reported.”
When the emailer replied that a Provo dispatcher had been sexually harassed by King, the Sun reporter replied, simply, “I would say that sounds familiar.”
The city responded to the new allegations against King by hosting a closed-door session of the City Council in January 2016, and by anonymously surveying dispatch employees. Of 17 dispatchers who responded, one complained that King touched employees, specifically “patting my shoulders or rubbing my arms.”
“I have heard the way he has acted with other employees being disciplined,” the dispatcher wrote, “and though sexual harassment is not my fault, I don’t want to deal with possible repercussions.”
Curtis reviewed the complaint with King and told him “to discontinue the reported behaviors or any other action that could be perceived as inappropriate,” White said. King was also ordered to retake sexual harassment training.
Curtis wrote in a February 2016 email to human resources that King “is extremely regretful that his actions have caused an employee to feel uncomfortable and is determined to make sure there is nothing in his conduct that can be (interpreted) as sexual harassment.”
“He and I discussed and agreed that on any visit to dispatch he would stand in one place and not move among the employees.”
White said Thursday that Provo officials didn’t feel they had grounds to fire King “for someone perceiving that he looked at their chest” or for a woman who “didn’t like him rubbing her shoulders.” King had denied the conduct, she said.
“You have to balance the disciplinary action with the type of conduct that is involved, and to that point, the city felt that the disciplinary actions that were taken were appropriate,” she said.
White’s statement didn’t address a fall 2014 meeting in which Curtis was alleged to tell police department supervisors “he did not want to receive any more complaints about Chief King.”
Curtis has said he never discouraged reporting of sexual harassment, and that the subject of the fall 2014 meeting was King’s unpopular new beat policing program, as well as rumors that because King’s wife hadn’t accompanied him to Utah, his tenure would be short-lived.
Curtis said in a written statement Thursday that as mayor, he “worked hard to support a system that gave those who felt vulnerable a safe place to come forward and be heard.”
Three other plaintiffs have made allegations against King that were not reported until after King's resignation.
A dispatch supervisor says she was physically and verbally harassed for much of 2014. Another longtime employee says she was groped at a copy machine and pressured to return early to work after surgeries because he “missed the scenery.” And a police officer says King repeatedly groped her beneath her flak vest.
King’s 2017 departure followed the allegation that he raped a college student who he met at a 2016 citizen advisory board meeting. King, 59, acknowledged having sex with the student but said it was consensual.
“The plaintiffs’ allegations against Mr. King are very serious,” White said. “The city has confidence that the judicial process will reveal whether those allegations are true or not.”
Provo has referred the plaintiffs’ complaints to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office for criminal investigation, but Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said in a text message Thursday that “We were asked but we have had no response from witnesses involved.”
Attempts to contact King, who is also named in the complaint, have been unsuccessful.
Loren Weiss, an attorney for Ray Quinney & Nebeker, said in an email Thursday to the Deseret News that King instructed him to comment that “he unequivocally denies all allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct in the complaint filed against him and Provo City.”
“He is confident in the court process and in the rule of law, and he is certain he will successfully defend himself,” wrote Weiss, who said he has yet to be formally retained by King.
White said Thursday that King’s response to the plaintiffs' complaint “will have an impact on how the case proceeds.”
For its part, Provo filed a motion Thursday for dismissal, saying plaintiffs have no standing to demand changes to Provo’s policies because they face no threat of future misconduct, that Provo is immune from plaintiff’s claims of "negligent employment, supervision and retention,” and that Utah law prohibits punitive damages against city agencies.