The Utah Attorney General’s Office confirmed a complaint has been filed asserting a Utah County commissioner and a former commissioner accepted high-end gifts in 2013.
“I did find out a complaint was filed. I cannot confirm or deny an investigation, but we have received a complaint,” said Missy Larsen, the chief communications officer for the attorney general, on Tuesday.
Alpine resident Bruce Dew said he filed a complaint Jan. 4 with the state attorney general against Commissioner Larry Ellertson and two other commissioners, who reportedly accepted and took a trip with other politicians to Switzerland in 2013 on a jet provided by Snowbird.
“My interest here isn’t for or against Snowbird," Dew said. "I love to ski. I like expansion if it’s done properly and protects our water rights, our environment."
While some Salt Lake politicians paid for their flight, hotel and tour expenses out of their own personal accounts, Ellertson said in a November phone interview he does not know who paid for his trip. Ellertson did not return calls Tuesday or Wednesday.
“What has really gotten me in a tizzy, has really gotten me upset and spending a lot of time going to meetings was the fact that this commission, two commissioners … [and their] apparent unlawfulness or breaking policy that Utah County has with respect to their connection to Snowbird,” Dew said.
He said he wants to know who paid for Ellertson and former commissioner Doug Witney to go on the trip.
“In the case of the Utah County commissioners, there is no evidence, no answers or nobody is finding out, who paid for them to go,” Dew said.
Witney said he has the canceled personal check to prove he and his wife paid their own way for the trip. The former commissioner said after meeting with Snowbird CEO and President Bob Bonar and receiving an invitation to Zurich for a fact-finding tour, he met with Kent Sundberg from the Utah County Attorney's Office, who has since retired, and asked for legal advice.
Witney and his wife decided to go but pay their own way. He said he’s not too worried about the complaint regarding his role in the trip.
“Absolutely, I think it will be dismissed,” Witney said.
In 2013, the three county commissioners at the time — Ellertson, Witney and Gary Anderson — met with Bonar as a group.
Anderson also could not be reached for comment.
“There was also the mayor of Salt Lake County, the mayor of Salt Lake, the mayor of Sandy, representatives from Ski Utah, from UTA, from UDOT," Witney said. "And so there were a number of us that met up in Salt Lake and they proposed this.
“My thought was I’m not that excited about saying that ‘I’m in.’ I want to talk to our county attorney first."
According to Witney, the trip was rewarding as it related to his role as a county commissioner.
“It was a busy trip; I mean we were up at 6 in the morning, we had breakfast, we were off again," he said. "We went to looking at roads to looking at trains. We looked at Doppelmayr, who was the one who built the trams, and that was absolutely fascinating how they built the trams in some of the big cities, and so it was a busy trip."
One of Witney's concerns as commissioner was how to build a road up American Fork Canyon, and he found out how Switzerland solved steep narrow canyon issues for transportation.
Witney retired as a commissioner in 2014 and was chairman for the Utah County Board of Adjustment. He said he resigned from that board Jan. 12 because of a flood of emails from participants involved with Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon.
He did not resign out of guilt, he said.
"I had $6,000 to $7,000 left in my travel account when I left," he said about his Utah County Commission fund.
The board of adjustment oversees conditional use requests such as the Jan. 7 request by Snowbird for approval to build two ski lifts, a zip line and several buildings on Snowbird’s private property in the Mineral Basin area of American Fork Canyon.
Witney did not attend that meeting, and asked to be excused. The other board members neither denied nor approved the Snowbird request and instead decided to continue the discussion until Feb. 4 after more information could be provided by county staff and Snowbird.
While the trip to Switzerland may have been educational and necessary, in Dew’s mind if the commissioners accepted the trip as a gift, Snowbird has a politician in its back pocket, he said.
“If the county is not paying for it, it’s a boondoggle,” Dew said. “In this case, our county commissioners probably received, they and their wives, I’m estimating $60,000 worth in gifts to go to Europe.”
Meanwhile, it’s a wait-and-see moment with the attorney general’s office.
According to Larsen, the office will release information only after the investigation is finalized. However, if the complaint should be dismissed, she said there likely will not be an announcement because no merit was found in the complaint.
“When it’s a highly public issue then we will confirm the investigation, but we rarely do so," Larsen said.