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The Utah Attorney General's Office has confirmed that it has an ongoing and long-running criminal investigation of San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.
The A.G. wouldn't elaborate, but the probe is believed to be a continuation of one launched in 2013 under then-Attorney General John Swallow in the wake of conflict of interest allegations involving Lyman's public office and his private business as a certified public accountant.
Lyman said Saturday he was unaware of an ongoing investigation and knew nothing of its details.
"I don't know what they have or what they're doing," he told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The whole thing is crazy and hard to imagine."
Lyman is the local official who has gained widespread attention for leading an ATV protest ride on protected federal lands in San Juan County's Recapture Canyon in 2014.
Convicted of federal misdemeanors and planning to appeal a 10-day jail sentence and $96,000 restitution bill, he has achieved something approaching hero status among some rural leaders who believe federal land management is strangling local economies. But he has been portrayed as an incendiary and reckless scofflaw by many on the other side.
Disclosure of the unrelated state probe emerged as a result of a Tribune records request to the attorney general's office initiated in July by reporter Robert Gehrke. The request for records in the Lyman matter was denied for undisclosed reasons by the A.G.. When Gehrke appealed to the state Records Committee, the A.G. made an unprecedented request for a closed-door hearing before the panel. Committee members unanimously rejected this proposal, after which it ordered the A.G. to turn over the records at issue.
In his response Friday, assistant attorney general Blaine Ferguson stated, "The Attorney General's Office has no records of any closed investigation conducted into San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman within the last five years." The A.G.'s office considered the records dispute closed.
Ferguson went on to say that the A.G.'s ability to provide any information on the matter "has been strictly limited." He pointed to an application for a criminal investigation secrecy order filed by the office in January 2013 an order that was apparently granted by the 7th District Court, although Ferguson did not confirm that.
Ferguson said the need for absolute confidentiality in the case has now been eased somewhat because "the fact of an investigation of Commissioner Lyman has been disclosed in widely disseminated news stories."
Asked for a direct statement Friday, spokeswoman Missy Larsen said, "the attorney general's office confirms that there is an open investigation."
The office declined to elaborate on the nature of the probe.
As previously reported by The Tribune, the investigation was launched after former San Juan County Assessor Howard Randall alleged Lyman used his county position to lower property tax assessments for clients of his accounting practice or for other properties that could benefit him personally. He complained to the state Tax Commission in 2012, which referred the matter to the A.G.. Investigators from that office showed him a presentation of what they had found in 2013, he told The Tribune.
Lyman says the allegation that he obtained property tax breaks for clients or to benefit himself was "a bunch of baloney" and said all of Randall's appeals on assessments to the State Tax Commission were rejected nearly three dozen in all, according to Lyman. "It was vindictive, it was unfounded."
He said he was aware the A.G. might be investigating him at the time but was told "second hand" that nothing ever came of the probe. While Lyman said he considered asking for a letter formally clearing him of the allegations, his attorney advised against it.
"I've never talked to anybody in the A.G.'s office personally," Lyman said. "I never wanted to push the issue, I thought it would be kind of inappropriate for me to be trying to dig or assert some influence."
Lyman said as far as he was concerned "that's really where it died." He added he heard nothing more about it until The Tribune stories on the records request.
Nate Carlisle contributed to this story
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