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Lt. Gov. Bell's audit spurred by former Mormon ward member

Published April 10, 2013 11:03 am

A man from Bell's LDS ward claimed DCFS mishandled his family's case, abused power.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A performance audit that sparked a criminal investigation of Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell was prompted by a complaint Bell received from a man he once home-taught in an LDS ward.

According to information obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune via government-records requests, the man came to Bell with allegations that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) was mishandling a 2011 case involving his four grandchildren and their parents, his daughter and son-in-law. DCFS officials believed the man's daughter was subjecting the children to unnecessary medical treatments and that the father had failed to protect them from the mother's alleged medical abuse.

Documents show the grandfather felt DCFS was abusing its power and initially contacted Bell for advice. During a January 2012 hearing, the grandfather described Bell as a "neighbor of six years," as well as his erstwhile home teacher and assistant high priest group leader, both lay service roles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Tribune is not releasing the names of the family members involved in the case to protect the identities of the children. A judge who ordered the release of audiotapes in the case also barred the newspaper from releasing specific information about the children's medical conditions, among other things.

In a phone interview Monday, the grandfather said he and Bell used to live near one another and were casual "associates" and "neighbor friends" who didn't spend much time together socially.

The grandfather said throughout the case, Bell acted appropriately and described him as "an extremely honorable person." He said Bell did not try to influence the case and that they don't have the kind of relationship that would result in Bell ordering the audit merely as a personal favor.

Bell did not respond to a recent request for an interview. But in a statement issued Feb. 22, Bell said he ordered the performance audit in 2011 on the recommendation of a state auditor after Bell received complaints about DCFS from a family. While he did not name the family, it is clear from case documents that it was the grandfather's complaints that sparked the audit, which was completed in 2012.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings subsequently opened a criminal investigation related to the audit. Rawlings declined Monday to comment on the status of that investigation, but a letter he previously released said his office was looking into possible abuse of government power and money by Bell.

Rawlings also previously reported that the FBI is assisting in the probe. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Monday.

When the case began, DCFS officials wanted to work with the family to keep the kids in their home and with their parents, according to testimony in a January 2012 hearing.

But over time, DCFS personnel became convinced the parents were lying to them. The caseworker assigned to the family told a judge she saw numerous "red flags" and discrepancies in the parents' statements. The kids weren't given the proper medical evaluations, she added, and appeared to be coached on what to say to officials.

As a result, DCFS workers came to favor removing the children from the home, according to testimony.

But the children's grandfather saw things differently. In emails sent to Bell in 2011, he called DCFS a "renegade agency" and its employees "bullies." The grandfather also called the case "the epitome of a miscarriage of justice" and said DCFS lied about the facts.

In the interview, the grandfather told The Tribune that the children do, indeed, have serious medical issues.

Bell evidently was troubled by the grandfather's allegations. In one email, he calls the situation a "nightmare" and encourages the grandfather to "hang in there." In another email — this one to Department of Human Services Executive Director Palmer DePaulis, who also oversees DCFS — Bell wrote that the "stakes are so high" and said he feels "very unsettled."

Most of the documents obtained by The Tribune have been heavily redacted, but it is clear that Bell did not want the government and his administration to "be party to any rushed proceedings."

Bell consequently appointed two state-employed auditors to do a performance review of DCFS. A copy of the audit obtained by The Tribune also was heavily redacted but it apparently aimed to evaluate agency-wide policies.

Despite Bell's initial concerns, he and the grandfather appeared to acquire different views of the case as it progressed. In November 2011, for example, the grandfather wrote in an email that he sensed Bell was "beginning to feel that DCFS is in the right in pursuing this."

Later, the grandfather called Bell a friend but said that "as this progresses we may find ourselves viewing this from different perspectives." That email, sent to Bell, also conveys a more aggressive tone, referring to DCFS personnel as "your people" who have "broken the law."

In his response, Bell concluded that there may be no way to resolve the case to everyone's satisfaction.

"The views are completely opposed and not to be reconciled," Bell wrote of the conflicting opinions of DCFS and the grandfather's family.

In yet a later email, Bell took a similarly neutral position, writing that the case ultimately demonstrated the "difficulty of managing hard situations."

During a January 2012 hearing, the grandfather also testified that, despite a "smoking gun" produced by the audit, Bell was no longer going to help him.

That testimony is recounted in an email sent by Assistant Attorney General Laura Thompson to DePaulis. Thompson describes the testimony as "cryptic and ridiculous."

The audit ultimately didn't impact the specific case that prompted it, according to a letter DePaulis sent to Gov. Gary Herbert. DePaulis also said in the letter that Bell had involved himself in a case in which he had a personal interest. The result was that DePaulis came to believe that Bell questioned his integrity and had no confidence in him.

The case eventually was resolved when the parents effectively entered a plea that didn't require them to confirm or deny the allegations. That plea allowed the court to proceed as if the allegations were true.

In January 2012, a judge removed the children from the home and placed them in DCFS custody.

Before making his ruling, the judge said the mother had not cooperated with DCFS and was repeatedly dishonest.

"Frankly," the judge added, "the mom just doesn't get it."

The judge said the primary goal after removing the children would be reunifying them with their parents. He said, however, that it would be difficult to return the children if the parents insisted they did nothing wrong.

The children's grandfather said Monday that they have since been returned to their parents. DCFS officials do not comment on cases.

jdalrymple@sltrib.comTwitter: @jimmycdii






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