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Rep. Justin Miller's complaint that he was fired from his Salt Lake County job in retaliation for questioning ethics violations in the mayor's office were rebutted on several fronts Wednesday, as county records emerged that appeared to bolster allegations against the lawmaker of possible campaign-account pilfering.
County Mayor Ben McAdams and District Attorney Sim Gill held a news conference defending their rejection of Miller's claim that The Exoro Group improperly received a county consulting contract because the husband of Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn had business interests in the public-affairs company.
They also provided more information about the grounds for Miller's dismissal last October and for asking the Davis County attorney to review evidence alleging that Miller siphoned funds from the McAdams for Mayor campaign.
Miller managed that 2012 campaign for McAdams and was made his associate deputy mayor after the Democrat took office in early 2013.
Later Wednesday, Exoro Group President Maura Carabello and Donald Dunn, the deputy mayor's spouse, separately denied that they had any of the financial ties alleged by Miller in his complaint about conflicts of interest in the award of county contracts.
Miller, now a freshman Utah House Democrat from Millcreek, was not available to respond. He told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday night that he was leaving for a Florida vacation and did not return a phone call Wednesday. His attorney also did not respond to Tribune inquiries.
Documents released by the county in response to open-records requests showed that Miller in December filed a notice of claim, the first step in pursing a civil lawsuit, alleging he was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for questioning two things:
• McAdams moving his re-election offices to a space leased from Exoro; and
• The propriety of a $100,000 contract Exoro Group received to help two new county departments regional development and township services get off the ground.
Miller initially claimed Donald Dunn had an "equitable interest" in Exoro and other companies that received county contracts, with no one disclosing his ties to the deputy mayor. In a revised notice filed in late January, Miller pulled back from the ownership claim to say that he believed Dunn "and/or entities owned or operated by him had received undisclosed county funds through Exoro."
Both assertions are wrong, Dunn and Carabello said.
"Maura and I have been friends for a long time she managed my [unsuccessful 2000] congressional campaign but I've never been paid by Exoro or employed by Exoro," said Dunn, adding that his current company, The Opinion Group, has not received any county contracts. Nichole Dunn is listed as a director in that firm.
"There is absolutely no truth, zero merit to Justin's claims," he added. "What this is really about is an employee who was terminated because he didn't perform and can't account for missing money. He's trying to deflect [attention] by coming up with a bogus claim."
Carabello said "we have no financial relationship and there isn't a pass-through mechanism. … I say that without hesitation."
She said she's done some unrelated business with Dunn. Exoro managed the Count My Vote campaign, whose backers hired Dunn as a fundraiser. Carabello also said that the Fuel Freedom Foundation was one of her clients when Dunn raised money for that nonprofit group, whose CEO is former Utah Republican Party chairman and businessman Joe Cannon.
Carabello said Exoro got the contract because "this is what we do. We work for governments, nonprofits and the private sector. Our work speaks for itself."
County records show that Exoro beat out two other applicants for the contract after receiving the endorsement of a contract-selection committee.
In the news conference, where neither McAdams nor Gill would answer questions, citing the threat of a Miller lawsuit, the mayor said he lost "trust and confidence" in his former colleague's job performance and told him to find new employment.
McAdams also said he determined Miller was using campaign funds for office space to run a private political-consulting firm and told him to stop. After relieving Miller of all responsibility for campaign accounts, McAdams said, his former manager admitted that he owed the campaign roughly $10,000. "We later learned that number was significantly higher," the mayor said, although he declined to repeat the $30,000 figure he told The Tribune on Tuesday.
"Justin was unable to provide a sufficient explanation for my questions," McAdams said, adding, "I taped that conversation."
The tape, included in the documents released by the county, capture McAdams confronting Miller for allegedly embezzling $24,000 meant for a campaign caterer.
The normally low-key McAdams is audibly enraged when Miller said he would like an apology after he paid the money he owed the campaign or produced proper receipts.
"I am never going to apologize for wondering why in the hell you wrote yourself a $24,000 check and never fessed up to it. You think that I owe you more? Bullshit," McAdams said.
The mayor worried that Miller's creative accounting had it not been discovered in time might have placed him in the position of signing a fraudulent campaign disclosure.
Dunn, also in the meeting, ripped Miller: "You have done something so unbelievably stupid, incredibly stupid. You've put yourself at risk, you've put the mayor at risk, you've put all of us who have been involved in this campaign at risk."
At the news conference, McAdams said, "I promptly turned these matters over to law enforcement so they could investigate the money that was missing from my campaign. Personally, I felt betrayed. While turning over the information to law enforcement was a sad moment for me, it was not a hard decision. For me and my administration, trust is paramount."
Gill said he referred the campaign-funding issue to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings "to avoid the appearance of bias for or against Mr. Miller. We will leave it to them to make that determination."
In terms of Miller's allegations of impropriety, Gill said his office's investigation found each claim to be without merit and vowed to defend the county's actions "with full vigor."