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Utah Agriculture Department Pledges To Improve Integrity And Transparency After Critical State Audit

A farmhouse sits between a lush green field and red-rock cliff-face.
Carl Berger Sr
Utah’s Office of the State Auditor released a scathing report Wednesday, detailing misspending and impropriety at the state’s Department of Agriculture and Food.

A pattern of unethical and improper spending had taken root with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, according to a report the Utah’s Office of the State Auditor released Wednesday.

The audit listed 12 findings. Those included how top leadership had failed to disclose conflicts of interest, used government resources for personal trips and possibly gave preferential treatment when awarding the state’s cannabis-growing licenses.

The state auditor’s office began to take notice of the department’s issues in January, when the first whistleblowers stepped forward, said State Auditor John Dougall. He added the complaints were later followed by concerns from the governor’s office and the department’s current commissioner Logan Wilde.

The office’s inquiry centered on the conduct of top officials and the general operations of the agriculture department under former Commissioner Kerry Gibson. Gibson stepped down from the role in January to launch a failed campaign to claim Rep. Rob Bishop’s, R-UT, seat as a representative for the state’s First Congressional District.

Dougall said that kind of behavior is evidence of what’s known as “weak control environment.”

“When government employees are working on behalf of the public, they’re spending their precious tax dollars,” he said. “It’s critical that they make sure they have the utmost integrity in what their doing and their intentions are in the interest of the taxpayer.”

Dougall added that Wilde, whom Gov. Gary Herbert appointed to take over the department in March, was among the first people to approach his office about performing an audit.

More Transparency And Accountability

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Wilde said his department no longer employs the workers identified to have had conflicts of interest. He added the department began taking steps to improve transparency and tighten up general operations this spring. Those measures include eliminating the department’s in-house travel coordinator and requesting an internal auditor.

“I take our role very seriously, and I believe the people working there now take their role very seriously,” Wilde said. “We’re moving forward as a department to make sure that we are doing the people’s work in the correct way in the correct visibility that can be seen to the public.”

The department is in the early stages of evaluating whether it will pursue recovering damages from former employees who misspent public funds — a move recommended in the report.

In response to the audit, Alliance for a Better Utah, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing transparency and accountability within the state government, urged the department to fully implement all of the state auditor’s recommendations and pursue full repayment from former employees found to have misused resources.

“While this is a tough example of how an individual’s — or group of individuals’ — worst impulses can rob the public of both resources and trust, it’s also a great example of a functioning government rooting out corruption within its own ranks,” said the group’s communication director Katie Matheson. “During this stressful time, Utahns need to trust the government that serves them, and we applaud Governor Herbert and the State Auditor’s Office for their swift work on this matter and helping maintain that trust.”

To solidify that trust, the state auditor’s office will release a follow-up report next year, evaluating the extent to which the agriculture department has followed through on implementing the recommendations. In the meantime, Dougall encouraged Utahns to keep close tabs on public meetings and spending via online tools provided by the state.

The department will hold a public meeting to decide whether the licenses of the state’s cannabis cultivators will be renewed in mid-December.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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