The Utah Investigative Journalism Project was denied access to a 2012 report on the actions of former Utah Transit Authority board members by a state panel Thursday. The report, compiled by Utah attorney general’s office investigators delved into allegations of insider dealings that have dogged former UTA board member and developer Terry Diehl since the late 2000s when it was revealed that Diehl had consulted for, and later became an owner in a company attempting to develop property adjacent to a proposed FrontRunner stop. A legislative audit would later find that Diehl made millions from selling his developer rights on the deal.
The Project was actively seeking this report from the Utah attorney general’s office, but had been denied the records by the office for fear they would jeopardize the ongoing investigation into Diehl, who was at the time preparing to face a federal charge of making a false declaration in a bankruptcy filing from 2012.
When federal prosecutors dropped this charge in November 2017, the Project argued there was no more ongoing investigation and Tyler Greene, the solicitor general for the office initially agreed. But the office soon reversed course saying that the records had to be denied again after having learned there was still an ongoing investigation into former UTA board members.
The attorney general’s office initially would not disclose what other agency was still investigating the matter, but on January 8, the office filed its arguments to be heard before the State Records Committee and included in it an affidavit from FBI Agent Michelle Pickens.
“The Salt Lake City Office of the FBI has an open and ongoing Public Corruption investigation targeting former Utah Transit Authority board members and others,” Pickens’ affidavit reads. (In a separate interview request, the FBI declined to comment for this post.)
The Project had its hearing with the State Records Committee, January 11. The panel, made up of representatives from local and state government, the media and other groups, exists to settle records disputes, most often between members of the media and government agencies.
The Project argued that under Utah law, records considered private can be made public under the “balancing test” that allows disclosure when the public interest in releasing the records outweighs the government’s interest in keeping them secret. Given the controversy surrounding UTA, on top of the fact that Utah has a dismal track record in producing convictions on public corruption cases, the Project argued the public deserved to see the report.
The Project also argued that the events described in the report—going back as far as 2007—had long ago slipped past the five-year federal statute of limitations and so any ongoing investigation the FBI was conducting lacked any real teeth in regards to the information in the 2012 report.
While the State Records Committee has the authority to examine the records in order to determine for themselves if they indeed meet the standard to be disclosed in the public’s interest, the committee declined to read the report. Instead they deferred to the authority of the FBI and ruled unanimously against making the report public.
The Project plans on continuing to investigate this issue.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to developing investigative, watchdog journalism in Utah. If you’re interested in supporting our mission with a tax-deductible donation click here. For comments, tips and enquiries contact Project director Eric Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org