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A half-hour before former Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman was acquitted of misusing public funds, she turned down a plea-bargain offer from prosecutors.

Jurors had deliberated into the night Wednesday and they were at it again Thursday morning. Both sides feared a deadlock, and nobody wanted to try the case twice.

The stakes were high for Workman. As she later put it, two felony convictions would mean she would be "wearing an orange suit and behind bars."

But special prosecutor Michael Martinez was again offering to reduce the two felonies to class B misdemeanors, and Workman and her defense team discussed the deal.

"It was a great deal," said defense attorney Greg Skordas. "Nancy, to her credit, stuck it out. She didn't want to plead to something she didn't do, just to avoid a felony."

Workman and her attorneys discussed, then rejected, the offer, then returned to 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton's courtroom to await the jury's decision.

When Atherton's clerk read the first ''not guilty'' verdict, Workman looked up and raised her fists in exultation. When the second ''not guilty'' verdict was read, she bowed her head, then looked at the jury and mouthed, "Thank you."

Moments later, Workman told reporters, "My knees are weak. It's done. It's over. We're vindicated."

She explained she chose to "roll the dice" because of her faith in the legal system - and because she is innocent.

"I didn't do anything," she insisted. "I looked at the jury and they looked like good people. And I thought the system would work.

"If you believe you're innocent, fight for it."

Workman admitted she had wept "a little" at being exonerated of second- and third-degree felony counts of misuse of public funds.

"It's against my rules to cry, but you can only take so much," she said. "It was a tremendous, tremendous relief."

Workman expressed a rowdier emotion in the court elevator with Skordas and defense attorneys Jack Morgan and Tiffany Johnson.

The doors slid shut and Workman whooped with joy. She yelled again - ''Yeeeaaah!'' - after walking out the courthouse doors.

Martinez called the verdict "a fair determination by a fair jury. They deliberated a long time [8 1/2 hours]."

But Martinez said the trial should send a message that the district attorney would prosecute such cases "win or lose."

In a news release, Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom said he accepted the jury's decision but praised the county employee who blew the whistle on Workman.

"A courageous government employee raised questions of wrongdoing involving a phantom employee in the health department and a subsequent investigation led to the mayor," Yocom said.

According to prosecutors, Workman, 64, conspired to have the county Health Department hire two successive bookkeepers, who worked exclusively for Workman's daughter, Aisza Wilde, the chief financial officer for the South Valley Boys and Girls Clubs.

Martinez said mother and daughter put together "a gravy train" and did their best to hide what was happening.

The defense conceded that Workman made a mistake in policy and procedure - an error they say later was corrected with a ledger entry.

But the defense insisted there was no crime because the county routinely donates money and manpower to nonprofit organizations that provide services to the community.

As former Deputy Mayor Alan Dayton testified, "You'd have a jail full of all nine county commissioners - and me," if criminal charges were filed every time an official violated a county policy.

The moral of the story, according to Workman: "It just means you've got to have a contract and do the paperwork."

Added defense attorney Jack Morgan, "It's hard to swallow the idea that a public official doing something to benefit the community [should be convicted of a crime]."

At trial, Morgan argued that Workman lacked the criminal intent required to return a guilty verdict.

The judge has decided not to release the names of the jurors until next week.

But according to an attorney who spoke with a juror, Workman's intent was the main sticking point during jury deliberations.

The jury of five men and three women apparently focused on the moment the alleged scheme was conceived - when Wilde asked her mother for county help.

"Did Nancy and Aisza have the intent to commit a crime? They wrestled with that for hours," the attorney said. "They finally decided there must be reasonable doubt."

The seeds of the hiring scandal were planted in June 2003, when Wilde told her mother she was about to lose her part-time assistant, Alina Iorga, unless she could find money to hire the bookkeeper full time.

According to Wilde, her mother said she would try to find a way to help. Workman, in turn, talked with her top lieutenant, chief administrative officer David Marshall.

A 10-minute discussion between Marshall and the mayor became one of the central issues of the trial.

The defense claimed there was a miscommunication, followed by a series of missteps by other county employees that failed to correct the mistake. Because of a strict chain of command instituted by the mayor, complaints from the Health Department about the new employee on its books never reached the mayor.

The defense alleges it was Marshall who decided to put Iorga on the health department payroll, not Workman.

But the prosecution made much of the fact that Workman chose to personally sign the bookkeeper's time sheets.

Marshall testified that Workman talked about hiring a community liaison regarding health-care access issues and never mentioned the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Marshall said he never would have hired someone to work exclusively at the club, with no benefit, or quid pro quo, to the county. He also testified he could have legally accomplished Workman's goals - if she had only given him all the facts.

Defense attorneys attacked Marshall's credibility by calling private investigators who testified that he told them last July that Workman specifically wanted to hire someone who would be placed at the club.

The defense called a veritable Who's Who of Salt Lake County notables to vouch for Workman's reputation for honesty and integrity.

The cavalcade included Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, former Murray Mayor Lynn Pett, former Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson and former County Councilman Russell Skousen.

But those who knew Marshall said they also held him in high regard.

After the verdict, a smiling and laughing Workman said, ''I'm so thrilled I can't stand it.''

She said her immediate plans were to "quit shaking and give my husband a hug."

Workman said her daughter - who now works as a fund-raiser for the Boys and Girls Clubs - has learned about the perils of public life from the scandal.

"It was a good experience for her, overall," Workman said.


Tribune reporters Michael Westley and Lisa Rosetta contributed to this story.