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Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Tim Ballard named in lawsuit alleging suppression of free speech

Reyes released a statement through his spokesman Tuesday night in response to the allegations

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Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks at a press conference in the Gold Room at the Capitol.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks at a press conference in the Gold Room at the Capitol on Jan. 23, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is being sued for unconstitutional suppression of free speech, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

The lawsuit names Reyes, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) and OUR founder Tim Ballard as defendants and alleges Ballard and Reyes had attempted to silence a witness to fraud within the OUR organization.

Both Reyes and Ballard have been at the center of controversy in recent months. Ballard is facing several allegations of sexual assault, which he has denied. Reyes has been under scrutiny for his relationship with Ballard, prompting some Utah lawmakers to discuss a proposal to appoint, rather than elect, the state’s attorney general.

Reyes, who is Utah’s top law enforcement official, was previously accused of alleged witness tampering in a complaint filed with Salt Lake’s 3rd District Court on Nov. 2. Reyes’ office released a statement calling the earlier claims “false,” “defamatory” and “unethical.”

The plaintiff in the new lawsuit, Suzanne Whitehead, alleges Reyes and Ballard both attempted to intimidate her into silence regarding unethical business practices she claims to have witnessed while collaborating with OUR.

In a statement released Tuesday night, Reyes’ spokesman Richard Piatt said, “As the complaint itself supports, the Attorney General sent a single text and made a few phone calls seeking to find common ground between two NGOs. He regrets if his communication was viewed in any other way and contributed to a feeling of undue pressure. He trusts the impartial court process to prove his motives and actions were appropriate and legal.” 

Ballard and OUR did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit says that Reyes and Ballard first became friends in 2013 and alleges Reyes began acting as both personal counsel to Ballard and general counsel to OUR while he was serving as Utah’s attorney general.

Reyes participated in several OUR rescue operations, which the lawsuit alleges gave “unwarranted credibility” to OUR’s operations and allowed Ballard access to other political leaders.

The lawsuit reiterates several claims made against OUR and Ballard in recent months, alleging the organization’s rescue missions were “an expensive cosplay for donors” and that Ballard used the missions as opportunities for sexual misconduct. Ballard has previously denied these allegations.

Whitehead alleges she became concerned about the sustainability and lack of long-term care for trafficking victims rescued by OUR while working with the organization on a trip to Nepal.

Whitehead said she also stopped working with OUR and returned to Nepal to help at a shelter, which she claims was not affiliated with OUR. However, the lawsuit alleges that OUR published a blog post several months later claiming the shelter was one of their own, using victims’ names without their consent and embellishing information about the victims.

The lawsuit states this event left Whitehead “disgusted and embarrassed,” and she began speaking out against OUR on social media about the event and others. The lawsuit alleges members of OUR — including Reyes — attempted to “silence” Whitehead in response, reaching out to her supervisor at her work and calling for her to retract her statements.

Whitehead then contacted the Davis County Attorney’s Office, which had begun an investigation into OUR. The investigation was closed in May 2023 when the office announced it would not be pursuing any charges, per Deseret News.

The lawsuit claims Whitehead “experienced emotional pain and suffering” as a result of Ballard and Reyes’ alleged intimidation and suppression, which the lawsuit alleges was a violation of First Amendment rights. In response, Whitehead is seeking monetary compensation and punitive damages.

The lawsuit is one of several developments facing the attorney general and his office. On Nov. 14, Utah’s Legislative Audit Committee voted to audit the office. Several days later, Derek Brown, former chairman of the Utah Republican Party, announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for attorney general, potentially challenging Reyes.