Former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson loses the battle to keep the investigation private
The following story was published by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project in association with the Salt Lake Tribune.
A criminal investigation, which ran from Fall 2017 to May 2018, investigating allegations that former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson had misused state funds for his own benefit, ultimately found no charges.
Investigators investigated whether Gibson was diverting resources from a government-funded river project, the case of a worker who said she was asked to raise political funds as she went about her job, and whether a political action committee event at Ogden Airport was against the law .
Though none of the allegations resulted in charges, Gibson fought he and his family would be embarrassed by the investigation, led extended legal battles to keep the contents and results secret – and managed to do so for more than three years.
A unanimous ruling by the Utah Supreme Court in August 2021 found that Gibson had no authority under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to block publication of the records because of its broader constitutional right to privacy.
[Related: My GRAMA saga and why it matters.]
During the March 5 argument in the Supreme Court, David Reymann, an attorney for the Salt Lake City-based law firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, said that the public disclosure of potentially embarrassing information was a constant occurrence.
“If you have someone who disagrees or said, ‘I’m embarrassed by these allegations’, you have the right to know about allegations of misconduct against someone running for Congress.”
A story in public office
Gibson, a dairy farmer, served as Weber County Commissioner at Utah House prior to his two terms.
He has since maintained an active political career. He was briefly appointed assistant director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources and was appointed commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food by Governor Gary Herbert in April 2019.
He left that job in January 2020 to run for the seat of the 1st District Congressional in Utah. Gibson was eliminated from that race in the June primary.
When asked why he fought so hard to keep the records secret, Gibson wrote:
“Several agencies have verified the credibility of these allegations and found them to be untrue. I have always said that this smear campaign was completely wrong. They were supposed to harm me politically, but they only exposed the lack of credibility of those who dishonestly orchestrated this coordinated attack.
“Unfortunately, this type of attack is all too common in politics, but it is still terrible and incapacitating. The message, if you are running for public office and want to serve your community, watch out. A political enemy or disgruntled employee can make an accusation, and even if it’s false, they will attack your family and drag your name through the mud. “
Gibson’s brief stint as director of agriculture and nutrition in Utah was marked by whistleblower complaints that culminated in a damning state examination. The 12 outcomes included questionable and improper use of government resources and staff.
The investigation into the allegations against Gibson was conducted by Ogden Police, who turned it over to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings to look for criminal charges. Rawlings concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that Gibson had misused taxpayers’ funds.
One of the allegations that led to the investigation was allegations that Gibson used staff from the government-funded Weber River Project to do additional work on Gibson’s farm that was outside the scope of the project. The river project came into being after the Weber River burst its banks in spring 2011 and flooded several nearby farms and homes.
Rawlings recently said on the phone that the decision not to pursue the river project allegations was an easy one “after we get to the bottom of it.”
After Rawlings received the Ogden police investigation, he said his office had invested a lot of time and energy on the case. And prosecutors found that the Army Corps of Engineers person responsible for the project had not been interviewed. So they contacted him.
“We were simply told that the Army Corps of Engineers was in charge of the project, not Kerry Gibson,” said Rawlings. “So there was no criminal case against Kerry Gibson.”
In the original complaint, Kevin McLeod, who served as the associate director of community development for Weber County under Sean Wilkinson, said officials at the county’s Roads Department raised concerns about Gibsons.
When Rawlings called McLeod with additional questions, McLeod told him that he believed what those employees said, “That there was improper work being done on Gibson’s property – additional work that Gibson asked or instructed to do that was not part of it of which were included “. the river project, or at least it shouldn’t be. “
But for every witness who questioned the work on Gibson’s farm, there were those who stood up for Gibson, saying he did not receive any special treatment during the project.
McLeod expressed doubts as to whether the investigation went far enough.
“The investigation has barely reached the surface of what really happened,” said McLeod. “I don’t understand why I’m not delving deeper into what I consider to be quite serious allegations.”
The employee says she was asked to raise funds while she was working
Prosecutors declined to bring charges on yet another set of allegations, this time relating to a district official who was asked to raise funds for election campaigns.
However, interviews conducted by Ogden Detective Rick Childress in the 50-page document suggest that former Weber County Commissioner Matthew Bell, also former chairman of the Weber County Republican Party, believed Gibson had one Crossed the border.
Holin Wilbanks, a former Weber County employee who was originally appointed public relations officer for the three-person commission in 2014, had raised concerns with Bell and others about being asked to raise campaign funds for Gibson as part of her job.
Childress asked Bell what he thought the problem with this might be, and Bell replied, “I think it would be completely unethical. Is that illegal now? … I do not know that.”
State regulations for workers in Utah prohibit political activity in the workplace, and the Weber County’s Code of Conduct prohibits “soliciting political support or donations using county employees, money, time, or equipment.”
The document also revealed that former Weber County Commissioner James Ebert had similar concerns about Wilbanks raising campaign funds on the job.
“She told me that she was extremely uncomfortable about being asked occasionally to solicit campaigns from companies for Kerry,” said Ebert Childress.
Both Bell and Ebert directed Wilbanks to stop all campaign activities in the workplace. At the time, Wilbanks had a public relations role, which meant she worked different hours, including a few weekends, and was in contact with company leaders at events across the county.
The far-reaching investigation that Childress was conducting was eventually turned over to prosecutors in a neighboring district for them to review for possible criminal charges.
Regarding the allegations of campaign fundraising on the job, Davis County’s attorney Rawlings said over the phone that he and Assistant District Attorney Rick Westmoreland looked at every section of the relevant state law while looking for sufficient evidence to prosecute to exalt that one belief.
“Westmoreland interviewed them [human resources] Director at Weber County, ”said Rawlings. “Holin cooperated and gave us information. But from the documents themselves it could not be proven that the crime was committed. “
Investigate a PAC
The released records show that Childress also meddled on the Northern Utah Leadership Political Action Committee, which Gibson and former State Representative Brad Dee founded in 2013.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell also signed as the third member of this PAC, which still operates today, despite not having received any new donations since 2016. Campaign funding disclosures over the years show that the PAC has raised funds and made a huge contribution to Republican candidates.
In October 2015, the PAC held a fundraiser at Ogden Airport that Childress investigated.
Childress found an email documenting the Northern Utah Fall Jubilee.
The email sent by [redacted] to [redacted], asks for financial support for the PAC, saying, “We hope you will join us and invest in quality leadership on October 22nd, 2015 for an evening of food and entertainment at Ogden-Hinckley Airport.”
A flyer about the event urged recipients to RSVP [redacted].
Childress indicated that these documents could be important.
“The records included in this package support that of. behavior described [redacted] during my interview with her, ”wrote Childress in the investigation report.
He also wrote that the report’s findings showed “sufficient evidence to warrant a prosecutor’s review”. He recommended examining Utah’s electoral law “to see if that behavior falls within the elements of those laws.”
For Davis County’s Rawlings and Westmoreland, the questionable campaign collections posed a tougher challenge than the other incidents.
“It got mixed up a lot. Many of the events were legitimate outreach events in the districts that were also campaigning, ”said Rawlings. “The closest we got to law enforcement, there were good reasons why we couldn’t prove beyond doubt that Gibson was involved in criminal activity.”