As lawmakers reviewed an audit Wednesday that says a former Utah Transit Authority board member likely broke the law, a parade of activists urged expanding investigations into the agency that they said has run amok in land deals to enrich board members and friends.
"Concerns raised in the audit are just the tip of the iceberg," said Zach Frankel, a UTA critic who is executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and a longtime critic of the UTA. "UTA as an agency is out of control. State and federal laws have been broken."
The comments came during a hearing before the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee. It reviewed a legislative audit initially released in December that said Terry Diehl likely broke the law as a UTA board member when he obtained rights to develop land near a proposed UTA FrontRunner stop in Draper.
Documents released this week said Diehl and his lawyer told legislative auditors that he was paid between "millions and $24 million" for his development rights. Diehl, however, told The Salt Lake Tribune that most of that was to reimburse costs and that he made little profit.
Diehl also said he properly disclosed conflicts of interest under UTA rules at the time and abstained from voting on the site. But auditors said state law at the time banned a board member from buying land or rights that could be affected by board decisions.
When that audit was released, the Legislative Audit Committee, consisting of the Legislature's top four leaders, declined to ask the attorney general to investigate. But the Attorney General's Office has since said it is investigating anyway.
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, Senate chairman of the transportation panel, said he and other leaders will verify that the investigation is indeed moving forward, as requested by committee members.
Several activists asked for more and deeper probes by both the state and local governments, alleging shenanigans over the FrontRunner location in Draper and a proposed Diehl development in Cottonwood Heights, which was promoted by UTA General Counsel Bruce Jones, a former city councilman, and UTA Chairman Greg Hughes, a Republican lawmaker from Draper.
Summer Pugh, who helped form Citizens for Responsible Transportation due to concerns about where to put a Draper TRAX station, said it found that agreements had been signed that essentially forced where the TRAX route would be through Draper even before public hearings were held about where to put it.
Claire Geddes, a community activist and UTA critic, said Hughes actually helped to weaken ethics laws after the audit was initially released, allowing board members to have conflicts of interests and still serve as long as they declare them and abstain from voting. She called for his resignation from the UTA board.
Hughes said the Legislature overwhelmingly approved that bill because it makes the UTA board live by the same rules as members of other types of boards from water boards to mosquito district boards. He added that conflicts of interests aren't always bad and are inherent in some government oversight activities that require expertise.
Hughes also told the committee that problems at UTA have been fixed and that the agency is seen as a national leader that finished projects early and under budget.
"We have been fixed. We have clarified the [conflict of interest] statute. The trustee who was talked about in this audit is no longer a member of our board. And I'm proud to say that UTA has moved on in a strong way," Hughes said.
But Van Tassell questioned why UTA waived its normal rules that ban a former member from doing business with the agency for a year to allow Diehl to continue to pursue developments now.
Hughes said that was done to help persuade Diehl to resign. He said if he stayed on the board, he could continue to be involved in developments as long as he declared conflicts and abstained. Diehl confirmed this week that he has met with the UTA about being involved in more transit-oriented developments and is exploring options.