Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson never tried to hide his past consulting ties to the potash industry. But he could do more to make it clear that he has no conflict of interest on any related issues that come before the council.
Those are the findings of a new third-party investigation that the Grand County Attorney’s office commissioned in response to an ethics complaint alleging that Jackson failed to disclose his relationship with the industry.
While the outside counsel found no evidence of any wrongdoing, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald said that Jackson and other council members should make a habit of disclosing any past financial ties that could influence their opinions and votes. Even if they no longer have any connections to an industry or business they once represented, Fitzgerald said a public announcement to that effect would give citizens more confidence and faith in their government.
“It’s better to err on the side of disclosure than nondisclosure,” he said.
The complaint from Living Rivers Conservation Director John Weisheit was the third one that has been lodged against Jackson during his first term in office, only to be dismissed after lengthy legal investigations. It’s similar to allegations that county resident Bill Love raised in 2013, when Love claimed that Jackson’s past work as a subcontractor for a potash industry consultant posed a conflict of interest.
Fitzgerald concluded that Jackson did not violate any state or county ordinances in that case, and Jackson said he is not surprised that the latest investigation reached the same conclusion.
“It’s exactly what I thought it would be,” he said.
However, Jackson said he’s upset that the county attorney’s office spent an estimated $7,000 in public funds on outside counsel’s fees to resolve questions that should have been put to rest two years ago.
“I’m just disgusted with the amount of money that was spent, and the amount of time that Andrew and his staff also spent, to answer the same allegations that Bill Love raised back in 2013,” he said.
Weisheit has said he is simply seeking greater transparency in local government, and was hopeful that his complaint would achieve that outcome.
“This is about good government and simple disclosures,” he said. “The public deserves a strong ethical policy requiring regular disclosures of potential or actual conflicts where the elected or appointed official is paid to promote or otherwise financially benefits from furthering the interests of a particular business or industry with matters under consideration before the public body.”
Jackson countered that the series of complaints against him are politically motivated attempts to shut him up.
“(It’s an example of) how far people will go to silence voices that they don’t want to hear,” he said. “They don’t like what I’m saying, so to me, it was about silencing me and casting aspersions on my character.”
Weisheit said he appreciates the time and attention that the county attorney’s office paid to the complaint, but he “respectfully disagrees” with some of the findings.
“The fact is, Jackson has been a paid consultant for the potash industry, while repeatedly failing to make simple public disclosures of the nature of his interests prior to important votes that impacted and potentially furthered the interests of his clients,” he said.
Among other things, the report found that Jackson made no secret of his public stance in support of potash development and multiple-use management of federal lands in Grand County.
“People understand that (he’s) pro-development and pro-mining and all that stuff, and that (his) agenda is to move the county forward in that direction,” Fitzgerald said.
As a rule, though, the county attorney’s office will now advise county council members to follow the County Officer and Employees Disclosure Act, and to be “generous” in disclosing any financial or personal interests that may influence their actions as public officers.
“What we’re saying to Lynn and what we’re saying to the county council in general is, Lynn could have given the public the openness and the clarity by just re-disclosing,” Fitzgerald said. “His re-disclosure would have been, ‘I don’t have anything to disclose’ … He’s not required to do that, but we’re saying that it’s the best practice.”
Jackson said his former role with potash industry consultant Del Fortner Consulting was limited to subcontracting jobs, and he said he performed the bulk of that work in 2013.
Related issues came up from time to time at county council meetings, and Jackson said that audio recordings would show that he went on record to disclose his business relationship with the consultant on those occasions. However, Jackson said he was under no legal obligation to do so.
Weisheit maintained that Jackson was “peddling his influence” in an attempt to sway other council members to support his positions on mineral development.
Fitzgerald, however, said the current council has never voted on anything that affects the potash industry directly, and if it had, other council members would have “called (Jackson) out” on his positions.
“But we never had that situation, thankfully,” Fitzgerald said.
Weisheit’s complaint also asked Fitzgerald to issue an opinion that would have required Jackson to make annual disclosures about his ties to potash developers, its consultants and any other company that has an interest in local mineral development. In addition, he wanted Jackson to announce any ties to the industry before the council member votes on any related issues, such as Grand County’s official position on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposed Master Leasing Plan.
But the legal investigation found that Weisheit’s approach could affect the ability of county council members in general to do their jobs.
“If one were to take such a broad view of a conflict of interest, it could well prevent an elected official from serving the interests of the very individuals who voted him or her into office,” the report says.
For instance, if voters elected a real estate agent to the county council, that person arguably could not vote on zoning issues generally because it might affect overall real estate development in the county. Likewise, bike shop owners turned council members who are held to Weisheit’s standards could not vote on the development of new trail systems, because their votes could potentially increase their business’ revenues.
“Such a result would be untenable,” the report says.
Weisheit filed his complaint in November 2015, and Fitzgerald initially anticipated that his investigation into the allegations would take just a matter of weeks. But after he began to research the matter, Fitzgerald said he decided to contract the investigation out to a Salt Lake City attorney who specializes in ethics cases.
“I don’t want the public to think the results are biased, one way or another,” he said. “Things have been pretty politicized with Lynn and Weisheit.”
However, the outside investigation was delayed following a tragedy in that person’s family, and the findings only became available to the public on Tuesday, April 19.
Weisheit said he believes that Fitzgerald was ultimately wrong to find that local good government laws don’t apply, and ignores the fact that Grand County intended to create an ethical standard that goes above and beyond state law.
“In the absence of leadership in the county attorney’s office, I call on Mr. Jackson, and all of our elected and appointed officers, to follow through on the county attorney’s ‘best practices’ recommendation and immediately disclose the full amounts of compensation from clients, the nature of the work, and the time periods of all contracts while serving the community,” he said.
Jackson, in turn, reiterated his belief that he did nothing wrong.
He said that although the public allegations against him have been hard on his family, they did not factor into his decision not to run for re-election this year.
He said he believes that politics in Grand County are changing, and not in his favor as a self-proclaimed moderate conservative. With only a short time left in his term, he said he doesn’t expect any further ethics complaints against him to pop up between now and his final day in office.
“My guess is that they got what they wanted, and I’ll just ride off into the sunset,” he said. “So Grand County, take care.”
But county attorney says officials should make routine disclosures about potential conflicts
It’s better to err on the side of disclosure than nondisclosure.