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Audit rips former Utah agriculture commissioner for travel, cannabis grow picks

Posted at 10:00 AM, Nov 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-18 15:35:58-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A scathing state audit blasted the former head of Utah's Department of Agriculture & Food, claiming improper use of state vehicles, questionable travel expenditures and raising questions about how his agency selected medical cannabis grow licenses.

The audit, released Wednesday by Utah State Auditor John Dougall, went so far as to suggest the state get reimbursements from former agriculture commissioner Kerry Gibson and some of his then-employees, as well as possibly re-doing the selection process for cannabis grow sites.

The audit said Gibson took a state car on trips to Las Vegas and Bear Lake and improperly upgraded hotel rooms and airfare.

The audit also claimed Gibson's then-deputy director, Natalie Callahan, and the agency's public information officer, Sasha Clark, also did work for their PR firm on state time that included political campaigns and other government-relations. In October, the audit said, the governor's office directed Gibson to terminate them because of conflicts of interest.

"The Former Commissioner gave both the Former Director and the Former PIO $4,000 bonuses during the October 18, 2019 pay period. He gave another $4,000 bonus to the Former Director for the December 13, 2019 pay period. Although the Former Commissioner had the authority to award bonuses, we noted that there was no detailed written justification for the bonuses as required by UDAF policy," the audit said.

Gibson himself was placed on administrative leave by Governor Gary Herbert's office in October, the audit said. He resigned in January and launched an unsuccessful run for Utah's 1st Congressional District, losing to Blake Moore.

The audit also raised questions about Gibson's handling of the state's cannabis grow operations. It dinged the agency for not having enough written policies and raised questions about the fairness of it.

"UDAF’s process was not a 'blind' evaluation, meaning the evaluation committee members were aware of the applicants’ identities3 . The committee awarded licenses to eight growers. We analyzed various aspects of the evaluation and award processes. We note concerns about certain factors and conditions that call into question the independence of the process," it said.

Dougall's auditors suggested the cannabis grow licensing process be done over. However, current agriculture commissioner Logan Wilde said it may not be possible.

"The Department does not have statutory authority to reevaluate the awarding of cannabis cultivation facility licenses although we will carefully consider the renewal of licenses by the Cannabis Production Establishment Licensing Board in December of this year," he wrote in a response to the audit, adding that policies were being strengthened going forward.

Efforts to reach Gibson have so far been unsuccessful. In a statement, an attorney for Callahan and Clark accused the auditor of conflicts of interest and not using their full answers.

"They gave full and complete answers to questions put to them. The report fails to include the substance of their responses or the responses themselves. Our clients’ responses to the written questions fully refute the report’s findings as to our clients. Our clients believe they are being used to carry out others’ political agendas," attorney Sam Alba wrote.

"Our clients notified HR at least twice that they had an outside company and inquired what, if any information, must be disclosed. They were told no each time. During their time at UDAF, our clients did not have a single client under UDAF regulation and none that won a cannabis license. All of our clients’ time was approved by their supervisor. Their sick leave was also fully approved. Unfortunately, the report suggests otherwise and smacks of gender bias."

Read the audit here: