An investigation conducted by the Utah County Attorney’s Office Investigations Bureau found that Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner sexually harassed a former employee and violated the county’s workplace harassment policy in doing so, but the same former employee questioned the timing of the investigation and called it a “political vendetta.”

The investigation, which concluded on April 2, focused on a former employee of the clerk/auditor’s office who said he was harassed over “several months” by Gardner, his supervisor, including “multiple verbal references to his sexual orientation.”

The former employee, whose name is redacted in the investigative report, went to Utah County Human Resources Director Ralf Barnes on Oct. 20, 2020, and alleged that the elected official “had screamed at him and thrown her keys and purse at him.”

“This conduct revolved around problems with the phones and website needed for the election division,” Barnes wrote in draft notes of a preliminary investigation that were included in the report, which the Daily Herald obtained on Friday through a public records request. “She berated him for the problems in front of a group of employees. She then picked up her keys and purse and threw them a second time at him — she did not actually hit him with these objects either time.”

Additionally, the former employee, who is gay, said Gardner made demeaning comments related to his sexual orientation, including asking, “How many men could you fit in a car to hook up?”

Barnes spoke with four co-workers who corroborated the harassment allegations, as well as the key and purse-throwing incident. One co-worker said, “Amelia stated out of the blue in a meeting that she knew he was gay before he did and encouraged him to come out” and that “while speaking about sexual harassment training Amelia asked if it would be inappropriate to send (the former employee) a flaming hot Cheeto.”

“Amelia often states that (the former employee) is her token gay democrat. And he does a great job even for a gay democrat,” Barnes wrote in the draft notes.

Another co-worker said Gardner referred to the employee as “the gay democrat assistant … at least a dozen times,” while a different colleague said Gardner once talked “about the ratio of men to women in the office” and “said that (the former employee) is one of us, one of the women.”

The human resources director met with Gardner on Dec. 9 “to make sure she knew that several discriminatory comments had been corroborated and that this type of conduct must stop immediately.”

According to Barnes, Gardner was “very upset and incredulous that this was being investigated” and said that she and the former employee “were best friends and that she had no idea that they (her comments) were hurtful or offensive.”

On Dec. 9, Barnes wrote in his conclusion of the preliminary investigation that “elements of hostile work environment harassment (based on sexual orientation) have been corroborated” and that “further investigation is recommended.”

Utah County Attorney’s Office investigation

On March 19, an investigator with the Utah County Attorney’s Office began reaching out to the former employee and others involved.

When the investigator interviewed Gardner on March 25, she stated that she and the former employee first met years prior through her husband “and they became very close.

“In reference to the relationship she had with (the former employee), she did not think other office employees understood the relationship but has now come to understand that what was said may not be appropriate for an office environment,” the investigator wrote in the report.

When asked about throwing her keys and purse at the former employee, Gardner stated that the incident occurred “prior to the 2020 election and she was being questioned by a reporter on the phone” and that “she was trying to get (the former employee’s) attention as it related to some of the questions the reporter was asking.”

The investigator wrote that Gardner “stated that since this has been brought to her attention, she has become substantially more aware of what can be considered offensive conduct.”

“Throughout the interview it seemed clear Ms. Powers understood the inappropriateness of her behavior and the sexual harassing comments she made towards (the former employee), however, it also seemed she would minimize her actions when given the opportunity,” wrote the investigator.

The investigator continued, “At one point in the interview, Ms. Powers stated by continuing to interview individuals and conducting more investigation would only draw additional attention to the situation thus increasing the exposure to Utah County. Ms. Powers appeared remorseful over the damage done to the relationship she had with (the former employee) but never really seemed to show sorrow for the comments she made or the uncomfortable office environment she created.”

The four co-workers, who are not named in the report, again corroborated the harassment claims when interviewed by the Utah County Attorney’s Office investigator. One co-worker said they considered Gardner’s behavior “offensive” and that they believed the comments “were clearly not appropriate for an office environment,” while another called the sexual orientation comments “very inappropriate and offensive.”

One of the co-workers said they left the clerk/auditor’s office “due to the comments Ms. Powers would make as well as other unrelated poor behavior that was occurring in the office,” while another said Gardner “does have a talent for getting tasks done in an effective and efficient manner, but the way she accomplishes those tasks are often brash and inappropriate.”

The co-worker who left added that “after Director Barnes met with them after the initial allegations were made, there were clearly awkward times in the office because of them speaking with Director Barnes.”

“These awkward times related to Ms. Powers’ behavior towards those that had spoken with Director Barnes,” the investigator wrote.

The investigator concluded that “it clearly appears Ms. Powers violated Utah County Workplace Harassment Policy” and that “her comments as a supervisor and elected official towards (the former employee) certainly can be categorized as sexual harassment.”

“Unfortunately, there is no clear direction on how this type of behavior is handled when the offending party is an elected official,” continued the investigator, who recommended that “no additional actions (be) taken” with the “understanding that Ms. Powers has received training on workplace harassment following the complaint.”

The investigator wrote that “though Ms. Powers at times has rationalized and minimized her behavior towards (the former employee), it is clear she is more conscientious now of her actions and comments,” adding that “she has completed Utah County’s workplace harassment training and has taken active steps in drawing attention to potential and future workplace harassment problems.”

‘Political vendetta’

Gardner, who just weeks ago announced her run as a Republican candidate for an open seat on the Utah County Commission, said in a written statement provided to the Herald on Friday that “it has now come to my attention that certain officials plan to release a ‘report’ about events from last year, possibly to hurt my chances in the upcoming Special Election.”

“Here are the facts: late last year a conflict arose within our office with one of my all-star employees, whom I also consider a long-time close personal friend. The conflict arose from personal miscommunication during the most stressful time of the 2020 election and briefly became a problem within the office,” the clerk/auditor said.

Gardner said she believed the Utah County Human Resources Department “handled the matter appropriately” and said she “regretted my part in the conflict with such a valued friend.”

“HR made some recommendations, which we gladly followed, and everyone involved believed the matter was resolved and closed,” she said. “The employees who were indirectly affected are very concerned about this violation of their privacy and have no desire to be involved publicly. I support them in their wishes.”

In a written statement provided by the clerk/auditor’s office, the former employee who made the harassment complaint stated that he did meet with Barnes “to vent some personal frustration, though it was never my intent to seek any sort of disciplinary action.”

“He took our conversation seriously, interviewed those involved and followed up with some recommendations for improving interactions within our office,” he wrote. “As far as I was concerned, that resolved and concluded the matter.”

The former employee continued, “That is why I was dismayed that, shortly after Amelia announced her interest in the open seat on the Utah County Commission, certain other individuals decided to revive what all involved believed was a resolved issue. The timing and nature of the actions taken by these individuals is clearly intended to hurt Amelia, my friend and mentor, politically.

“I want all involved to know that I have no part in this apparent political vendetta,” the former employee wrote. “Amelia is my friend and a valued colleague; I wish her the best and absolutely support her campaign for County Commissioner.”

Gardner told the Herald on Friday that the former employee wished to remain anonymous because he is currently employed by an elected official in another county and wants to avoid being discriminated against because of his sexuality.

Former Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who came out as gay in May 2019, also defended Gardner, noting that, in the more than two years he worked with her, “she treated me, an openly gay colleague, with professionalism and respect.”

“More than a colleague, Amelia has been a personal friend for many years,” Ivie said in a written statement, adding that “it is unfortunate that some in politics will seek to exploit anything they can for political gain.”

In a letter sent to Barnes on April 2, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt noted that Barnes requested in December that the attorney’s office review the complaint but said he “did not immediately assign the investigation to an investigator given 1) the workload of my investigation bureau, 2) the fact that the victim of the harassment was no longer employed by Utah County, and 3) that apart from a censure from the Utah County Commission, there was no discipline that could be imposed because the subject of the complaint was an elected official.”

“The urgency to complete the investigation accelerated when Amelia Powers Gardner, the elected Utah County Clerk/Auditor voiced an intention to run for a vacancy on the Utah County Commission,” the county attorney wrote. “An uncompleted internal investigation into the conduct of a fellow elected official would diminish public trust in the independence and thoroughness of the investigation.”

Leavitt added that “to avoid any appearance of impropriety or politicization of the investigation, I assigned my investigations bureau the task of completing the investigation independent of input from me, the Utah County Attorney.”

“I could not have seen the additional complication of (former Commissioner) Tanner Ainge’s resignation resulting in Amelia Powers Gardner’s interest in seeking that position. Had I (a) crystal ball, I would have taken the additional step of committing county resources to pay for an external investigation,” he said.

In a written statement on Friday, Commissioner Bill Lee said he was “saddened by the findings of Utah County investigators that Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner engaged in sexual harassment and workplace bullying” but added “I commend Amelia for acknowledging that her behavior is not acceptable” and “the first step to real change is admitting there is a problem.”

“I want to reassure all county employees that I do not tolerate this behavior,” the commissioner said. “If any of them feel they are the victim of any type of harassment, they should feel free to come and talk with me. My door is always open. We must work together to root out behavior that contributes to a toxic workplace. All deserve to be treated with respect.”

Lee and Gardner sparred earlier this month over a controversial staff change, which the commission later rescinded, that moved county budget staff from under the clerk/auditor’s office to under the commission.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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