Utah attorney general fights 2 hostile workplace lawsuits
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A pair of lawsuits by former state prosecutors alleging they were retaliated against and forced out of their jobs at the Utah Attorney General’s Office for reporting wrongdoing and harassment raises new questions about an office that is only four years removed from a major scandal.
Paul G. Amann, a former assistant attorney general, alleges he was wrongly fired in late 2016 for reporting office employees who misused funds, retaliated against whistleblowers and hired and promoted a woman with a criminal record who was romantically involved with her boss.
Amann said that after he reported his claims to his supervisors, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and legislative auditors investigating the office, he was moved to a different division, received a pay cut, was ultimately suspended and finally fired after 18 years in his job.
Amann’s complaint also alleges he was punished for serving as a witness in a harassment lawsuit, in which another former prosecutor alleged office supervisors failed to investigate his allegations of sexual harassment and punished him and other employees who spoke out about unethical conduct.
The “violations of law and policy, gross mismanagement, abuses of authority, and unethical conduct are fully supported by the Utah Attorney General’s Office,” said the lawsuit by former prosecutor Robert Jason Hanks.
Reyes’ spokesman Daniel Burton said that due to the ongoing litigation and to protect the privacy of those involved, the office could not comment on the cases in detail.
“The office is confident, however, that our actions were appropriate, and we look forward to proving that through the normal course of litigation,” Burton said.
The Attorney General’s Office denies that Amann was terminated in retaliation for being a whistleblower “or for any other improper reason,” and disagrees with Hanks’ allegations of corruption and illegal conduct.
Reyes’ office has not responded to Amann’s allegations in his lawsuit but asked a judge to dismiss the case on Thursday, arguing Amann missed a deadline to file a required $300 fee associated with the lawsuit and should be blocked from trying to re-file it.
Judge Patrick Corum said he planned to rule on the issue in the coming weeks.
The allegations of an office lacking accountability, few protections for whistleblowers and misconduct by top officials comes after Reyes, a Republican, took the office in 2013 with a pledge to restore public trust and accountability. His two predecessors were accused of taking campaign donations and gifts like beach vacations in exchange for favorable treatment, though they denied wrongdoing.
Both lawsuits claim the attorneys tried to bring their concerns to Reyes, but Reyes did not investigate or take action and ignored their efforts to meet with him and express their concerns.
Instead, both men say managers in the office retaliated against them by reprimanding them, passing them over for promotions and aggressively investigating them.
Hanks alleges in his lawsuit that an employee in the office repeatedly exposed his penis to him over two years. Hanks said he reported it to his supervisor, but she failed to investigate it or stop the behavior and instead joked that the employee was Hanks’ “bathroom buddy” going through a “normal hygiene routine.” The employee is not named in his complaint.
The Associated Press does not normally name alleged victims of sexual harassment but Hanks agreed to be identified.
Burton said employees are free to express complaints or concerns and the office has a system which allows complaints to be made confidentiality and investigated by an outside party.
“We do not terminate or take action against employees for exercising a right to complain, “Burton said.
Burton also said the office requires mandatory workplace harassment training and reports of sexual harassment “are taken very seriously,” and investigated according to internal office policies and the law.
Hanks resigned in May 2017 but his case is still pending in court, where the Utah Attorney General’s Office is also arguing it should be dismissed, saying he already signed a settlement agreement with the office.
Hanks denies that he signed a settlement agreement.
Hanks’ former supervisor, Kristine Knowlton, retired in 2015 after her boss transferred her to a different division. Knowlton did not return a voicemail seeking comment left at a publicly listed phone number.