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Utah ex-official alleges retribution behind layoff

Published July 7, 2011 12:57 pm

Politics • Official says he lostjob for opposing rail station.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Another former state official says he was laid off — more than two years ago — for getting in the way of plans to develop an ancient Indian village archaeological site for a Draper commuter rail station.

Doug Clark, who was laid off in January 2009 as the managing director of business growth for the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED), said he was scolded, pulled off a key project and later let go for refusing to help with efforts to allow development of the site that was favored by former House Speaker Greg Curtis.

His allegations — uncorroborated by any documentation — are denied by Curtis and Jason Perry, who served as head of GOED and, later, as Gov. Gary Herbert's chief of staff. Perry said Clark's layoff was strictly a budget matter.



Clark said he is coming forward now because last week, three state archaeologists were laid off. The state said it was for budget cuts, but one of the archaeologists and supporters have pointed to fallout from protecting archaeological sites threatened by development, including the site in Draper.

Also in February, the governor fired longtime Utah Indian Affairs Director Forrest Cuch for "insubordination," but Cuch has said it likely was because of his opposition to the Draper FrontRunner station. However, Herbert, in August 2009 signed a deal preserving 252 acres of the ancient Indian village site through a conservation easement granted to the nonprofit Utah Open Lands.

"Everyone who has touched this [the Draper FrontRunner site] has lost their job," Clark said. "It appears something is terribly wrong and probably a felony has been committed."

Clark said he was drawn into the controversy when he explored creating a technology park on vacant state-owned land on the Draper-Bluffdale border near the state prison. The idea was to attract some technology development there as a start, which would increase the value of surrounding state-owned land — and make money for taxpayers through that increased value while creating jobs, he said.

Clark said he talked with the Utah Transit Authority about the possibility of placing a station for its planned FrontRunner commuter train near that site, near 14000 South, to enhance the technology park. He said UTA was interested, and that a UTA official, G.J. LaBonty, later told him a study concluded that was the preferred site for a stop in the area.

But Clark said LaBonty soon thereafter, in 2007 or early 2008, "called me and told me he had been told to re-do the study to ensure that it [the FrontRunner station] landed on land controlled by the [House] speaker [Greg Curtis]."

Curtis, a lawyer, has previously acknowledged trying to broker a land swap involving the controversial archaeological site for a client, Woodside Homes — including persuading Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler, a former legislative colleague, to stall the planned summer 2008 signing of a permanent conservation easement for the property.

Clark said after what LaBonty told him, he went to Perry, then executive director of GOED and his boss.

"I said, 'This is completely wrong.' Jason said, 'You will do nothing about this. You're not going to work on the project even. You're off the project.' " Clark said Perry told him not to discuss it with anyone.

Clark said he was stunned. "And I said, 'Jason this is about protecting the taxpayer. The taxpayer is losing the potential to sell all this land at a higher rate. …' He said, 'Doug, this has nothing to do with protecting the taxpayer, but it has everything to do with protecting the governor [then Jon Huntsman].' " Clark adds, "It's a word-for-word quote. I remember that. I wrote it down," but he adds he has no way of knowing if Huntsman had any involvement or if Perry was just saying that for effect.

Perry, now a vice president at the University of Utah after serving as chief of staff for Herbert, Huntsman's successor, said no such conversation with Clark took place, nor were any such orders ever given.

LaBonty told The Tribune that at the time he was studying sites for the FrontRunner station and told Clark that the site he wanted and another in Bluffdale then were the top contenders. He left UTA to work for Syracuse City shortly thereafter, but recently returned to UTA. He said he was never under orders to re-do a study on where to place the station. "That part of the story is not factual," he said.

Clark said after Perry scolded him, Clark set aside work on the potential technology park to see if the political climate might change and make it feasible again. But he said that in September 2008, he was invited to a meeting with Curtis and Perry where Curtis pushed for a road on the archaeological site to help his client. Clark said that the Department of Natural Resources had told him it "was completely nonnegotiable, and those Indian lands are off-limits."

Clark said that Curtis responded, "Doug, I am the speaker of the House. If I want something, I get it. ... I want you to talk to DNR to figure out a way to get that road through there. I know this may sound a little strange. You may think it is unethical — because it probably is — because effectively I'm asking you as a state employee to work for me and do work for my law client."

Clark said he told Curtis he would respond the next day. He said he called and left a message saying that Curtis was correct that his request would be unethical, so he would not help.

Clark said Perry, his boss, soon called him in and said, "Who do you think you are turning down the speaker and taking him on like that?"

Clark said he then took a long vacation, followed by an extended illness. Soon after he returned to work in January 2009, Perry told him that his budget had been zeroed out and he was laid off. He said Perry "let it slip" that he requested the budget cut the previous October, not long after the meeting with Curtis, who lost re-election that year.

Perry said no meetings to pressure Clark were held. He said Clark was laid off because his program was terminated and its budget was cut. He said no pressure was put on anyone to help with the Draper site. "We never bow to pressure like that at all," Perry said.

Curtis says he does not know Clark, and does not remember any meeting with him — and he says he is furious at Clark's allegations.

"He's raising these allegations now? It sounds like he was let go after I left office. This just sounds like a case of sour grapes from somebody looking to malign me," Curtis said. "Did he in any way document this? Did he file any formal complaints?"

Clark said he did not create memos nor file complaints. "The sense I got was that the Legislature was retaliating, and I considered filing a retaliation complaint and preserving my job. But I thought … I don't want to be part of this organization any more. Honestly, at the time I thought I don't care if they lay me off. I'm tired of all the sleaze that I've seen for the last three, four years."

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and an outspoken critic of the Draper FrontRunner station, says he believes Clark's story.

Frankel said documents he has obtained through open-records requests help confirm two points of Clark's story: that the FrontRunner stop he sought on the Draper-Bluffdale border was once UTA's preferred site, and that Curtis did approach state officials on behalf of his client Woodside Homes seeking a road through the Indian cultural site.

"Why he says he was terminated is consistent with the firing of Forrest Cuch and the state archaeologist," Frankel said. "All the people who were outspoken about the importance of protecting the state and the Indian village have been terminated."

Clark, who has both a law degree and an MBA, said he has worked as a consultant on venture capital projects since he was laid off from the state, but is currently looking for work.

After losing his 2008 re-election bid, Curtis went to work as a lobbyist for clients that include the Utah Transit Authority and Draper City.

A legislative audit last year said former UTA board member Terry Diehl may have broken state law and misused official information by trying to benefit from the proposed Draper rail site development by buying rights to develop land around it. Diehl resigned from the UTA board last week.

 

 

 

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