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When Justin Miller was being fired Oct. 8 for poor job performance as Salt Lake County's associate deputy mayor, he was offered a severance package of nearly $19,000.

A week later, the offer was cut in half — after county Mayor Ben McAdams became convinced Miller had stolen nearly $24,000 from his political campaign.

This change in severance offer is one example of an intermingling of government and campaign interests that are at the heart of Miller's allegation he was fired for blowing the whistle on financial impropriety in the mayor's office.

Miller went from being manager of McAdams' successful 2012 election bid to an executive position in the county, even as he remained in charge of the campaign. When Miller was removed from the campaign last September and fired from his county job soon after, the campaign books were turned over to a volunteer, who also happened to be employed by a county contractor.

Whether what went on is normal politics or something more nefarious could be a point of interest to the FBI and federal prosecutors, who took over a criminal investigation of the matter from Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings in early June.

The feds have not said what they are looking into but did issue investigative subpoenas, some to county officials, at least raising the possibility the probe involves Miller's claims. The FBI rarely gets involved in small-time theft cases.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill discounted the notion that the FBI was looking into the actions of the McAdams administration.

"The matter we referred to Mr. Rawlings for investigation involved Justin Miller's alleged embezzlement of funds from the McAdams for Mayor campaign account," he said. "We have no reason to believe the investigation, or the FBI's role in it, has been expanded to include anything other than Mr. Miller's alleged embezzlement."

Still, one upshot of the subpoena issuance was that, on June 19, Gill's office suspended that day's scheduled delivery of a large volume of materials to The Salt Lake Tribune in response to a public-records request.

"We are precluded from further production at this time because the materials you requested may be relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation," wrote Deputy District Attorney Darcy Goddard. "You may retain copies of the earlier-produced materials."

Paper trail • She was referring to 4,404 pages of materials released to the newspaper a week earlier by the county, including email traffic among McAdams, Miller, Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn and The Exoro Group, a Salt Lake City public-affairs firm whose principals were senior volunteers in the McAdams for Mayor campaign. A year after McAdams took office, Exoro received a $100,000 county contract to provide consulting services to the mayor's office.

In a Dec. 17 notice of his intent to file a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the county, Miller said he was fired for questioning the legality of relocating the McAdams campaign offices into space leased by Exoro after it received that county contract. But he went further, alleging that Dunn's husband, Donald Dunn, had financial interests in Exoro and thus benefited from his wife's position in the administration.

After receiving a blistering demand for a retraction from Donald Dunn's attorney, Greg Skordas, Miller and his lawyers amended their notice of claim last January. They softened their accusations about the relationship between Exoro and the Dunns, but did not retract them, arguing instead that Miller believed "Donald Dunn and/or entities owned or operated by him had received undisclosed county funds through Exoro."

Donald Dunn vehemently denies the allegation, repeating earlier statements that "there is absolutely no truth, zero merit to that. You can put an exclamation point after that."

In addition, Miller accused McAdams and Nichole Dunn of receiving or soliciting bribes and official misconduct for violating conflict-of-interest, campaign-finance and purchasing ordinances. Both have strongly denied these accusations.

Scant evidence • Emails and other documents obtained through the records request provide little evidence to support Miller's charges, which were rejected as unsubstantiated by Gill — like McAdams and Miller, a Democrat — before the prosecutor passed the case on to Davis County.

The only material supporting Miller's accusations is in an Aug. 26, 2014, email to McAdams in which Miller questioned the campaign's move into Exoro's office space, noting without elaboration that "they are a county contractor, and one that receives funds sans the open contracts and procurement process."

The next day, Nichole Dunn acknowledged to McAdams that "we probably do need to be careful as Exoro is a contractor and can't contribute more than $100." The mayor answered Miller on Aug. 29, saying, "Thank you for raising this concern. In all circumstances, I want to carefully follow all county regulations relating to campaign expenditures. It is always worth carefully verify[ing] that we are completely complying with all requirements."

Alyson Heyrend, the mayor's spokeswoman, said last week that McAdams followed all campaign rules and ordinances.

"He always strictly separated official work from work on the campaign," she said, noting the mayor insisted on paying fair-market value for office space his campaign leased from Exoro, which never has been a paid campaign vendor ­— but has long provided volunteer support.

Community-outreach contract • The $100,000 community-outreach county contract cited in Miller's complaint was awarded to Exoro in late March 2014 to provide coaching, strategic communications and engagement planning to the county's new offices of regional development and township services — along with "pertinent areas of the mayor's office."

Exoro won that contract over two other bidders. Stephanie Miller, a spokeswoman for one of those competitors — Salt Lake City firm Penna Powers Brian Haynes — said her team found "nothing askew" in losing the bid to Exoro, whose response to the county's request for proposal listed two other county-related contracts among 14 projects it had undertaken in recent years. Those were a $46,000 contract to promote the 2008 Renew the Zoo bond campaign and a $14,500 effort to help the mayor's office with communications, both during the administration of former Mayor Peter Corroon.

Miller said last week that he didn't approve of the way the community-outreach contract was handled and, without citing specifics, said he believed other contracts had been directed to desired suppliers by county leaders.

"It's the foundation for the notice of claim. I wanted to make sure everything was being done aboveboard," Miller told The Tribune, contending the county had a couple of ways it could direct small contracts to favored companies, such as Exoro.

"One way is breaking [a project] down into pieces to avoid minimum caps for competitive bidding," Miller said. "Another is stacking the selection committee with individuals familiar with the company and their principals and making sure the selection committee selects them."

"Rigorous" protocols • Did the mayor's office do this?

"Absolutely not," Heyrend said, contending regular bidding procedures were followed and selection-committee members were "chosen because of the need and scope of work required."

"Neither the mayor's office nor any county office paid money to Exoro other than in connection with its competitively awarded contract," she added. "We're happy to provide today, upon request, a full list of every payment made by the county to Exoro at any time during Mayor McAdams' administration."

Maura Carabello, Exoro's founder, said her company has never received a low-cost county contract and has "a lot of internal protocols that are pretty rigorous" to avoid conflicts of interest.

But most of all, she said, "if this was a buddy thing, you wouldn't see much there. But I am so proud of the work we do for the county and am happy to have everyone look at our work product. It stands on its own merit. You can judge our expertise and if we were the right company, based on the RFP [request for proposal] we put together and the work product we delivered. We do good work."

Still, the problem, as Miller sees it, is that Exoro's perpetual presence in mayoral activities made it hard to discern whether public or political work was being done.

"You never knew at any time," he said, "what hat was being worn."

The released documents also noted another connection between Exoro and McAdams' campaign in the person of Dina Blaes. A campaign volunteer, she was one of five Exoro staffers working on the county's outreach contract, earning as much per hour as Carabello. When McAdams decided early last September to take the campaign books away from Miller, he gave them to Blaes.

Missing money • This occurred right after McAdams learned belatedly that, in June 2014, Miller had written himself a $10,000 check from the campaign account as reimbursement for a charge he put on a personal credit card to pay a caterer at a fundraising event. But when American Express rejected his card payment, Miller did not return the money he had received from the campaign.

When McAdams first questioned Miller about the missing funds, Miller promised to pay the money back in a week and expressed remorse.

"I understand your frustration and disappointment. I have lost your trust. Please know that no one is more upset and embarrassed about this than I am. I failed you, the campaign and myself," Miller wrote. "While I wish the situation was different with us parting ways, I too feel it is for the best. I think of you as a friend and mentor. I admire no one more. You are a rising star and I consider myself blessed to have helped you. I hope in time I can be of additional service and we can continue as friends."

McAdams responded amiably: "I also consider you a close friend and adviser and look forward to that association continuing for many years." Added campaign adviser Donald Dunn after reading Miller's response, forwarded to him by McAdams: "I think this is a sincere response from Justin and I'm glad he is taking responsibility."

But the goodwill evaporated quickly during the next month.

More problems • On Sept. 25, Blaes informed Miller that a $9,600 check he had written the campaign to resolve the catering mess had bounced. About two weeks later, on Oct. 12, she contacted him again to say that the computer disc he had given her with campaign data was unreadable and asked him to upload the data soon so she could prepare the campaign's year-end financial-disclosure report.

While the records released to The Tribune don't document that Miller complied, McAdams and Donald Dunn clearly had access to the campaign's line-by-line ledgers for an Oct. 13 confrontation they had with Miller over $24,000 in missing campaign funds.

In the conversation, which was secretly taped, Miller sounded intimidated as he offered rather weak explanations for the discrepancy, but never backed off from his position he could come up with the documentation to justify his reimbursements.

He even said he would demand an apology, infuriating McAdams.

Two days later, Miller found his severance offer was significantly smaller. He declined to sign the settlement and, on Dec. 17, filed the notice of claim, seeking damages approaching $800,000, although he did say he would take $263,000 in immediate settlement.

Heyrend said the reduced county severance offer was driven by the discovery that more money was missing from the campaign — "as well as Justin's admission in the Oct. 13 audiotape interview. … The decision was made on what was in the best interest of Salt Lake County."

After the fact • Emails showed that after both the October showdown and the December notice, McAdams searched through his old phone and email records for examples of times when he and Nichole Dunn had complained to each other about Miller's poor job performance. Ultimately, they came up with a "summary of issues regarding Justin's ability to perform his duties" that was 1½ pages long.

That document was part of a May 12 release of materials by the county that also contained information about Miller's earlier departure as former County Councilwoman Jani Iwamoto's administrative assistant, illustrating to Heyrend his lack of ethical trustworthiness.

The most biting rebuttal of Miller's allegations of improprieties in the mayor's office was made by Donald Dunn's attorney, Skordas.

In a full-page note written to one of Miller's attorneys at 4:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve, a week after the original notice of claim was filed, Skordas blasted the accusations as showing "a complete and reckless disregard for the truth … that not only undermines the mayor's office (which I assume is your intent) but undermines the integrity and character of our client [Dunn], which is intolerable."

Three weeks later, at the end of a lengthy exchange with Miller's attorneys, Skordas concluded "your client is completely misinformed or outright lying."

Responded Miller: "He is a defense attorney. What do you expect?"

Matt Canham and Courtney Tanner contributed to this article