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What a Utah prison inmate has to say about uncovering alleged state government fraud

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Utah State Capitol building

Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah prison inmate whose claims initiated a federal investigation and lawsuit against several state criminal justice agencies accusing them of illegally accepting millions of dollars in grant and stimulus money defended his actions from his cell.

Reginald Williams, 59, said in a statement this week that he knows not everyone is excited that a prisoner uncovered the alleged fraud among agencies entrusted to ensure liberty and justice. He said he’s “keenly aware” of the optics, but that he shouldn’t be blamed.

“The focus must remain on the officials who betrayed the public trust,” according to the statement.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah filed a lawsuit against the state and 18 current and former state administrators in April, claiming they made false representations — including that they lost jobs or would lose jobs to budget cuts — in order to obtain and continue to receive U.S. Department of Justice grants.

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 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 federal government seeks an undetermined amount in damages, including between $11,181 and $22,363 for each violation of the False Claims Act.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he intends to vigorously defend the state officials named in the complaint.

Mistakes may have been made in the grant process, but the notion that they were all involved in a massive prolonged conspiracy to defraud the federal government is not only far-fetched but simply wrong, Reyes said earlier.

Williams, who is serving a life sentence for aggravated sexual assault and aggravated robbery, first leveled the allegations as a whistleblower in a lawsuit against the state in 2015. The lawsuit led to a federal investigation and the DOJ taking over the case.

He 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.

In his statement, Williams said he considers himself a government watchdog, not merely a whistleblower capitalizing on the law which entitles him to a portion of any penalty or fees the government collects.

“Once again, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession, Utah has received billions in federal grant money. Questions have already been raised about the lack of transparency in relation to purchasing contracts,” according to the statement.

Williams contacted each of the campaigns in the race for governor, the statement says. Though he’s not surprised that he has yet to receive any replies, he’s concerned that none of the candidates have championed becoming “Utah’s anti-corruption, law and order governor.”

Williams also makes a case for being released from prison, saying he should have been out 20 years ago, according to the Utah Sentencing Commission matrix.

He described himself as a model prisoner who has avoided drugs, alcohol, weapons and assault for more than 30 years. He said he has received four college degrees, including a bachelor’s in business administration. He said has completed mandated therapy programs.

According to the statement, Williams believes that because of the effective research skills he developed to convince the DOJ to sue the state and hold officials accountable, there should be “little doubt” that he is an asset and will contribute to society.