Moab City officials said this week they will aggressively pursue the source of several documents leaked to the Salt Lake City-based City Weekly, which printed a story Feb. 1 that included “private and protected” information on former and current Moab police officers.
In addition to several letters regarding personnel issues from the Grand County Attorney to the Moab City Police Department, the story also includes details of an April 2016 internal affairs (IA) investigation report into allegations regarding former Moab police offficers Joshua Althoff and Justin Olsen, as well as a May 2016 IA report concerning the tax returns of officer Steven Risenhoover. The City Weekly posted all the documents on its website after the publication of its Feb. 1 edition.
“We’ll vigorously pursue [the source of the leak] if possible because it’s a significant invasion of privacy issue,” Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt told The Times-Independent.
Several investigations have involved the Moab Police Department since early summer 2016, when the Salt Lake City office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) reviewed issues related to the department. The FBI sent its findings to the Utah State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), which is still conducting an “open and active” investigation on Moab City, officials confirmed.
As for the IA investigations, the three released by the City Weekly last week have concluded, Everitt said, but two others are actively ongoing — another involving Officer Steven Risenhoover and one involving Officer Shaun Hansen, who are both currently on administrative leave.
Although outside public safety agencies conduct the IA investigations, the city has paid nearly $60,000 to law firm Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless for services related to IAs in 2016.
“I feel that the city government as a whole, and the police department specifically, are taking these issues very seriously,” Everitt said.
A leak in the system
Issues with transparency, said editor Enrique Limon, are what motivated the City Weekly to release the three IA reports with their Feb. 1 “Mayhem in Moab” article.
“The overarching theme of ‘Mayhem in Moab’ is transparency or lack thereof,” Limon said. “City Weekly’s decision to include the Olsen/Althoff investigation, as well as the letters from the Grand County Attorney to [the] Moab [police department] and the internal investigation on Steve Risenhoover in the story, were shaped by that need for openness and accountability.”
The City Weekly story noted that a records request for the documents was denied by the city but that “sources” then provided the IA reports and Fitzgerald’s letters.
Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany said leaking personnel documents has serious implications, noting the source could face criminal charges.
“To the best of my knowledge, the IA reports were not obtained through authorized channels,” McAnany said. “... State law imposes a number of remedies for illegal disclosure of protected information. It can actually be a criminal offense. There is a real concern that if people are getting access to protected information, that that needs to be investigated.”
The Times-Independent submitted a records request to Moab city for the five IA reports from Moab city on Jan. 3, which was denied on Jan. 24. In denying the records request, Moab Police Department Administrative Assistant Cindy Montague said the release of that information could potentially interfere with “disciplinary proceedings” and disclose “investigatory techniques and procedures.”
A records request for a list of entities who have access to the five IA reports was also denied to The Times-Independent by the city last month.
Everitt said that such a record does not exist.
“ ... The city has not historically kept any kind of record as to who has had access to an IA report or not,” Everitt said. “From what I can tell, a hard copy has traditionally been kept in the safe in Lt. Ross’ office and nowhere else in the city. Now that said, electronic copies I’m sure have floated around, but there’s not been any method for tracking that either.”
According to Everitt, Ross, who is currently serving as the Interim Moab Police Chief, recently implemented a “checkout system” to track who accesses IA reports from the locked safe.
“[The checkout system] is in direct response to the concern that the city needs to be able to say more definitively who has had access to IA files,” Everitt said.
Althoff and Olsen are also concerned about the release of the IA reports. Denied unredacted versions of his IA report, Olsen’s lawyer, Christina Sloan said city officials reasoned their release could potentially harm the juvenile witnesses who were interviewed by IA investigators.
Now that Olsen’s IA has been publically released, Sloan plans to pursue damages as well as press charges against the City Weekly’s source.
“It is my understanding that the city is taking the leak seriously and investigating the same, as are we,” Sloan said. “We will cooperate with authorities to press charges against the individuals who leaked the documents as well as pursue our full civil remedies for damages.”
At the request of the Moab Police Department, the Utah County Sherriff’s Office opened an IA investigation into Officers Althoff and Olsen in April 2016. They investigated allegations that the officers played beer pong with juveniles during a party and provided alcohol to minors while off-duty in July 2015.
Utah County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeffery Jones conducted 11 interviews, gathered testimony from Ross and Moab Police Sgt. Craig Shumway, and called for two polygraph tests. According to the IA report, Althoff failed the polygraph and Olsen partially failed.
However, Jones eventually found “no substantial evidence” to show that either officer contributed to the delinquency of a minor or supplied alcohol to a minor.
“Although there are accusations to the contrary, I could neither prove or nor disprove these allegations,” Jones wrote in the report.
Despite those findings, both Althoff and Olsen say they felt forced to resign after the IA was conducted. Althoff resigned from the force on Aug. 19 and Olsen resigned Aug 30.
“Sgt. Jones and his IA report determined that the charges against [Olsen] were unfounded, and yet the city made it clear they were seeking termination through its aggressive action in the final weeks of the investigation,” Sloan said.
On Aug. 25, 2016, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald dismissed all cases where Althoff and Olsen “had significant roles.” In a letter to then-Police Chief Mike Navarre and then-City Manager Rebecca Davidson, Fitzgerald spoke of multiple criminal cases that were either “dismissed or not filed due to police officer misconduct.”
Sloan and Althoff both used the word “scapegoat” to describe their understanding of how Olsen and Althoff were treated and their resulting resignations.
“If people would take the time to read [the IA], it shows all the kids that were interviewed said we never gave them any alcohol,” Althoff told The Times-Independent. “ ... I feel like [Olsen and I] were just a scapegoat for some reason.”
Sloan said that although Olsen made some “bad judgments” at the July 2015 party, his actions “did not justify termination or the current ire of the Moab hate machine.”
“Mr. Olsen’s IA is not the first or the last at the Moab PD. Mistakes are inevitable when your police force is comprised of young, under-trained, and underpaid officers, like Moab’s,” Sloan said. “However, the unreasonable force with which the city investigated and terminated Mr. Olsen, and the expense incurred by the city to do so, was a first.”
But Fitzgerald says the outcome of the Althoff and Olsen IA investigation shows a much more disturbing pattern within the Moab Police Department.
“I felt that those were IAs that were done to brush things under the carpet,” Fitzgerald said. “I felt like they were saying ‘well, we’re doing what we’re supposed to but the outcome is going to be what we want.’ It goes to the pattern of what’s been going on for so long — not taking care of their own problems and just burying them.”
Interim Moab Police Chief Ross told The Times-Independent that the Moab Police Department now needs to focus on creating better transparency with the community.
“Whenever there is a news release pertaining to members of our department, it naturally affects the agency,” Ross said. “What we have to do is focus on building trust and being transparent with our citizens of Moab and the visitors that come here. Anytime there are issues, we need to address those and make any necessary adjustments.”