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Feds accuse Utah of misusing millions of dollars in DOJ grants, stimulus money

An environmental attorney and an information technology specialist recently were named as attorney and employee of 2013 for the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Several Utah criminal justice agencies, including the attorney general’s office, misused millions of dollars in federal grant and stimulus money, according to a lawsuit the federal government has filed against the state.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court late Friday claims the agencies made “materially false” representations, including that they lost jobs or would lose jobs to budget cuts, to obtain and continue to receive U.S. Department of Justice grants.

“In each instance, the agency that represented it did or would lose jobs had a budget surplus or had cuts restored before federal grants expired,” according to the lawsuit. “In the end, defendants obtained millions of dollars in federal funds that they were not entitled to receive because of their fraud and false certifications.”

The allegations were first leveled when a Utah prison inmate sued the state in 2015 as a whistleblower. The lawsuit led to a federal investigation and the DOJ taking over the case.

The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice received more than $17 million through the DOJ’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, the American Recovery Reinvestment Act Program, and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Continuation Program from 2009 to 2011. Some of the dollars were earmarked for states struggling in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.

The commission parceled the money out in smaller amounts to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, Utah Department of Public Safety, Utah Department of Corrections, Administrative Office of the Courts and Juvenile Justice Services.

The lawsuit names 18 current and former state administrators and the state of Utah as defendants. It alleges False Claims Act violations, common law fraud, payment under mistake of fact, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Among the defendants are corrections executive director Mike Haddon, Utah Highway Patrol Col. Mike Rapich and former criminal and juvenile justice commission director Ron Gordon, who now works as Gov. Gary Herbert’s general counsel.

The federal government seeks an undetermined amount in damages, including between $11,181 and $22,363 for each violations of the false claims law.

According to the complaint, state administrators misused the grant money by replacing rather than supplementing state dollars for dozens of criminal justice jobs.

“In particular, defendants used federal money to pay salaries of existing state employees and then did not, when required, immediately fill the vacated positions. This amounted to defendants supplanting rather than supplementing their agency budgets in contravention of the grant requirements and certifications defendants made to DOJ,” the lawsuit says.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office said Monday it would continue a vigorous defense on behalf of the defendants named in the lawsuit. It also said the alleged wrongdoing happened before Attorney General Sean Reyes took office.

After the whistleblower’s complaint was unsealed in federal court earlier this year, Reyes called state employees named in the case upstanding public servants.

“Mistakes may have been made in the grant process, but the notion that these individuals and their agencies were all involved in some massive predatory and prolonged conspiracy to defraud the federal government is not only far-fetched but simply wrong,” Reyes said then.

Utah prison inmate Reginald Williams filed the lawsuit as a whistleblower under seal with private attorneys in 2015, leading the DOJ to launch an investigation.

Williams, 59, who is serving a life sentence for aggravated sexual assault and aggravated robbery, became aware of the fraudulent conduct while working in the prison print shop and observing corrections employees, paid with grant funds, violating terms of the grant awards, according to his lawsuit.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City filed a notice to take over the case in February and had two months to file a new complaint, which it did on Friday.

Bill Schmidt, a Fresno, California, attorney for Williams, told the Deseret News in February that the federal government’s intervention means the case has “absolute merit.”

“They don’t do this unless there is strong evidence of wrongdoing, of fraud against the United States government,” he said then. “The activity that’s alleged in the complaint seems to be a way of doing business within those agencies.”

In 2012, Williams reported through the prison grievance process that corrections officials had conspired to fraudulently obtain and use justice assistance funding, according to his lawsuit. As a result, the suit says, prison supervisors fired him from the print shop in retaliation, causing him to lose $2,500 a year in wages.

Williams stands to receive compensation if the government wins the lawsuit, according to Schmidt.

The federal probe came to light in a court filing by the DOJ Office of Inspector General last summer asking a federal judge to force the state to turn over records it has refused to provide. The DOJ had served a subpoena on an assistant Utah attorney general last April, but the state did not comply.

The subpoena sought job creation and retention records, personnel records for workers funded by the grants, documents on hiring and employee transfers, and communications regarding complaints, objections and inquiries regarding job creation retention.

In his previous statement, Reyes said his office provided thousands of documents, made dozens of witnesses available for interviews, cooperated during the entire process and was negotiating a settlement when those talks broke down from the other side.

“Any attempt to characterize our actions otherwise is absolutely inaccurate,” he said.

The lawsuit claims the state agencies misrepresented that they lost or would lose dozens of jobs to budget cuts. The Utah Legislature appropriated sufficient money to pay for the salaries of employees the agencies paid with federal grant money, the lawsuit says. In some cases, the agencies had budget surpluses.

The state and its agencies claimed that they did not immediately fill vacant positions because of a statewide hiring freeze, but that gave them no legal justification to supplant federal dollars for state dollars, according to the lawsuit.