Investigation accuses former Utah agency head of wrongdoing

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah investigation into the state Department of Agriculture and Food under former Commissioner Kerry Gibson has identified issues with the agency’s former practices.

The investigation released Wednesday found that Gibson took state cars on personal vacations, improperly upgraded his hotel rooms and airplane seats and asked the department to reimburse him for costs he’d already charged to his state purchase card. The auditors said they were also concerned with how the agency awarded eight lucrative licenses to grow medical marijuana.

The investigators also accused Gibson’s former director of operations and agriculture programs, Natalie Callahan, and his former public information officer, Sasha Seegmiller Clark, of doing work for their public relations firm while they were working for the state agency. The investigation found four instances in which the two former Gibson surrogates worked for their private clients while on the clock with the state Department of Agriculture, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Investigators said Gibson gave Callahan and Seegmiller Clark thousands of dollars in bonuses as they were leaving the department with no detailed written justification as to why. Gibson is also being accused of approving significantly more overtime pay for Callahan than those in her same position, including one week when she logged down 90 hours of work.

In a prepared statement, lawyers for Callahan and Seegmiller Clark said their clients had responded in full to state auditors, but that the final report does not include their side of the story.

“Our clients’ responses to the written questions fully refute the report’s findings as to our clients,” their lawyers Rick Van Wagoner and Sam Alba said in the written statement.

Gibson was the subject of a criminal investigation by the Ogden Police Department when he was a Weber County commissioner, The Tribune reported. That investigation closed with no charges filed. Gibson is currently in a legal battle to prevent the public from seeing the details of that closed investigation. He did not return a request for comment via phone call on Wednesday.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office had ordered Gibson to either terminate Callahan and Seegmiller Clark or require them to leave the public relations firm after the state investigation began. Herbert also directed the commissioner to stop unnecessary travel, the improper use of state vehicles and other measures to curb his behavior.

Herbert’s office put Gibson on administrative leave after the agency head did not comply, the audit states. Gibson resigned in January and launched his campaign in the Republican primary for the 1st Congressional District. Gibson lost the primary race to Blake Moore.

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