A criminal syndicate operating out of the Utah State Prison in the early 1980s might have played a role in the suspected murder of Theresa Rose Greaves nearly 40 years ago.
Greaves was living in Woods Cross when she disappeared on Aug. 5, 1983. Her skeletal remains were discovered on a hillside just east of U.S. 89, near the border of Farmington and Fruit Heights, in February 2015. It remains unclear who killed her or why.
Woods Cross police and the Davis County Sheriff’s Office are currently treating Greaves’ death as a cold case homicide. Police documents obtained by KSL’s investigative podcast “Cold” by way of an open records request reveal one of the current leads in the case relates to a series of August 1983 home burglaries that occurred in the same subdivision where Greaves’ remains were eventually recovered.
Circumstances of Theresa Greaves’ disappearance
Greaves grew up in New Jersey but moved to Utah with friends in 1980, largely to pursue her intense fandom for the Utah-based musical group The Osmonds.
She’d spent time in Ogden and American Fork before, in June 1983, she rented a room in a mobile home in Woods Cross, near what is today the HollyFrontier oil refinery. Greaves was 23 and unemployed at the time of her disappearance, with no car. She was looking for jobs and had told her grandmother on the last day she was seen alive that she intended to take a bus into downtown Salt Lake City.
Police records indicate Greaves had told her roommate by telephone that day she intended to meet with someone for a job interview at the Rodeway Inn on North Temple in Salt Lake City, just east of Salt Lake City International Airport. Two days later, after Greaves failed to return home, the roommate reported her missing.
Woods Cross police searched Greaves’ room as part of their missing persons investigation. The only items unaccounted for were a pair of shoes, Greaves’ purse and her 1977 Collingswood High School class ring. The ring was set with a blue stone and was inscribed inside the band with her initials, T.R.G.
That ring, potentially a key piece of evidence in the case, has never been located.
Somerset Farms burglaries
On Aug. 7, 1985 — the same day Greaves was reported missing and two days after she was last seen — Davis County Sheriff’s Office records report that a man named Daniel Olsen Ranquist burglarized a home on Kingston Road in Farmington. According to the records, a week later, Ranquist and an accomplice burglarized a second home a mile to the north, on Eastoaks Drive in Fruit Heights.
In both instances, Ranquist entered the homes while the residents were away and stole jewelry and rifles. Police later recovered some, but not all, of the stolen jewelry from pawn shops in the Salt Lake Valley.
Witnesses in both burglary cases told police they’d seen a man matching Ranquist’s description in the area on the days of the burglaries, driving a green Volkswagen Squareback. One witness from the first case said he’d seen a man, later identified by police as Ranquist, coming out of the brush on the west side of Kingston Road and that he “appeared to be looking for something in the bushes, or the oak brush.” Investigators traced the car’s registration to Ranquist’s ex-wife, who was then living in the basement of a home just off 300 West and 500 North in Salt Lake City.
300 West is a primary artery for Utah Transit Authority bus traffic between Salt Lake City and its northern suburbs, including Woods Cross. It’s the route Greaves would’ve likely taken into Salt Lake City on the day she disappeared.
Daniel O. Ranquist
Ranquist was a convicted felon who’d served time in the Utah State Prison for aggravated robbery beginning in July 1980. In June 1983, Ranquist was released from prison into the custody of a halfway house called the Lakehills Community Corrections Center.
The halfway house was actually a motel leased by the state, where state prison inmates were supervised while transitioning back into society. It sat near 1900 W. North Temple, less than half-mile east of the Rodeway Inn where Greaves’ roommate had told police Greaves planned to meet an unidentified person for a job interview on the day of her disappearance.
Davis County deputies arrested Ranquist at the halfway house on Aug. 18, 1983. Ranquist subsequently admitted to carrying out the two burglaries in Farmington and Fruit Heights. He provided police with detailed information about the jewelry he’d stolen and where he’d pawned the items.
Ranquist ended up pleading guilty to third-degree felony theft in the first burglary case. Prosecutors declined to file charges against him in the second case as a result of a plea bargain.
Police reports say Ranquist was at first unwilling to identify his accomplice in the second burglary. He eventually did so, telling investigators the second man was his roommate at the halfway house, Gilbert Hunt.
The halfway house theft ring
Police in Bountiful were at the same time investigating Hunt as a suspect in an armed robbery that had taken place there on Aug. 13, 1983. He was arrested days later in Pocatello, Idaho, and extradited back to Utah.
Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office records show a confidential informant in the Bountiful burglary case told the investigators an inmate at the Utah State Prison, possibly named Ronnie Gardner, had been organizing burglaries for inmates who’d been sent from prison to the Lakehills halfway house.
Ronnie Lee Gardner was at the time serving a prison sentence for robbery. Later, in 1984, he would escape from custody and kill Melvyn Otterstrom at a tavern in Salt Lake City. After being recaptured, Gardner in April 1985 shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell while again attempting an escape.
The informant also told police Gardner had been working with someone on the outside to arrange the thefts and to fence the stolen property. That person went by the nickname “old man.” The informant provided police a telephone number for the “old man,” which police learned belonged to a Midvale-based contractor.
The Somerset Farms subdivision in Farmington where Ranquist had carried out his burglaries was largely undeveloped at the time in 1983 and was frequented by contractors.
“I was driving, looking for some work,” Ranquist is quoted as saying in a transcript of a police interview following his arrest. “Stopped at one house where they was doing construction work inside, talked with them.”
Witness accounts from Ranquist’s first theft on Aug. 7, 1983, show he knocked on several doors on Kingston Road before finding the vacant home he ultimately burglarized, telling residents who’d answered he was a roofing contractor looking for work.
One witness from the first burglary told police he’d seen an individual matching Ranquist’s description coming out of oak brush on the west side of Kingston Road.
“The individual appeared to be looking for something in the bushes, or oak brush,” a police report indicates the witness said.
Theresa Rose Greaves’ remains discovered
When Theresa Greaves’ remains were located on Feb. 5, 2015, they were largely contained to a shallow grave in a thick patch of oak brush just behind a home on the west side of Kingston Road. Property records and historical aerial imagery show the house had not yet been built in 1983.
“That was a new development under construction of new houses,” Davis County Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Valencia said in an interview for “Cold.”
Items of clothing were recovered along with Greaves’ skeletal remains, but her high school class ring was not found at the site despite a meticulous search by Davis County’s crime scene investigation team.
It was only after the recovery of Greaves’ remains that Woods Cross police and the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, working in collaboration, uncovered the possible connection to the Daniel Ranquist cases at the alleged halfway house theft ring.
Ranquist is deceased, leaving investigators to seek his past associates or any contractors who might have done work in the subdivision during the summer of 1983 in the hopes they might provide information leading to the identification of a suspect in Greaves’ death.
“We know that somebody’s out there, somebody out there caused her harm and it’s our job to identify who that person is and make them face the consequences of what they’ve done,” Woods Cross Assistant Police Chief Adam Osoro said.
Listen to the full episode
Season 2 of the “Cold”podcast will take you inside the no-body homicide investigation triggered by Yost’s disappearance. Audio tapes never before made public will allow you to hear Yost, in her own voice, describe the events which preceded her death.
You will learn why police suspected one man, Douglas Lovell, yet were unable to arrest him at the time. And you will see how some individuals and institutions gave — and continue to give — Lovell every opportunity to evade the ultimate penalty.
Hear Joyce Yost’s voice for the first time in the COLD podcast season 2, available to listen free on Amazon Music.
Free resources and help with sexual abuse are available 24/7 at RAINN.org. You can also call 800-856-HOPE (4673).
Stifling summer heat is here — weeks early. Heat stroke prevents us from focusing our feeble minds on one topic, so here’s a potpourri of issues in the news.
Former Utah House member Becky Edwards has kicked off a campaign for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination next year against Sen. Mike Lee. Club for Growth Action, a national conservative SuperPAC that has endorsed Lee, has already mailed attack ads against Edwards and Ally Isom, another potential opponent. Is this a smart strategy and is Lee vulnerable?
Pignanelli: “War has rules, mud wrestling has rules — politics has no rules.” — Ross Perot
Mountains of dandruff were created by political operatives scratching their heads watching the tactics of this PAC. The entity is legally forbidden from coordinating with Lee’s campaign, which explains the confusing activities.
Of course, smart candidates define themselves and their opponents before the other side does. But precinct caucuses are scheduled for March. The convention and primary are a year away. Thus, the timeliness is questionable. The challengers were almost unknown, but the mailed literature has elevated their name identification, especially with the resulting buzz in traditional and social media.
Lee is well financed and beloved among most GOP activists. But his Senate accomplishments are often ignored or vilified in the media. The PAC blundered by not highlighting Lee’s achievements to bolster support among the general population. Moreover, there are acres of fertile ground to plant seeds that Lee is the needed obstacle to liberal Democrats and a Biden administration. That helps him secure signatures for the petition and enhances fundraising capabilities.
This is another reminder that national PACs, either on the left or right, are usually clueless about local politics. They cause head scratching every year.
Webb:The truth is, it’s way too early to make any intelligent comments about this race. But I’m always willing to make unintelligent comments. Edwards is one of several Republicans thinking about challenging Lee for the GOP nomination. But Edwards is running a real campaign and the fact that Lee allies are already attacking her shows they take her seriously. But they’re increasing her visibility and generating some sympathy support for her. Lee ought to tell them to knock it off.
Lee does have some vulnerabilities. His overall job approval rating isn’t terribly high and his demeanor is more detached, scholarly and judicial than that of a charismatic rock star politician.
Edwards’ problem is that this race is for the GOP nomination and Lee is popular with the Republican base. Lee is clearly the favorite in the GOP primary.
Much will depend on the national political climate. If the Biden administration and congressional Democrats continue their leftward tilt, Utah Republicans will want someone who will fight for conservative values and policies, not someone who takes moderate positions and pledges to bring everyone together.
There has been a big uptick in crime across the country, especially gun violence. Is this a gun problem, or is it related to a shortage of police officers and poor law enforcement morale? Could this be a campaign issue?
Pignanelli: Defying expectations, enhancing public safety, and supporting law enforcement are winning issues in the 2021 New York City mayoral election. One of the leading contenders is a former police captain.
Most major metropolitan areas, including those in Utah, are experiencing increases in crime. The variety of causes percolating in the post-pandemic environment will continue next year. This will create incredible anxiety for politicians on both sides. Special interest groups successfully pushed policymakers into a relaxation of containing criminal behavior.
Backtracking is already happening. This new dynamic will likely drive a much-needed practical re-examination of how justice is implemented.
Webb: This is a real problem and Democrats who are viewed as anti-police may be punished in 2022. Liberal Democrats tend to focus their wrath on police shootings and ignore the much greater violence occurring all across the country. Their solution is gun control, which is a distraction and scapegoat. They prefer not to deal with the root causes of violence. Officials could try to confiscate all the 350 million to 400 million guns in America and criminals would still be shooting people.
This is a potent campaign issue. Police officers are demoralized, recruitment is difficult, and retirement rates are accelerating. Police work has always been stressful and dangerous. But who would want to be part of the thin blue line in this atmosphere of disrespect, overzealous scrutiny and lack of support from policymakers?
Certainly, if cops violate laws they should be fired and prosecuted. But responsible and caring officers every day face the reality that a split-second decision in a criminal confrontation that they didn’t want or instigate might lead to scrutiny, trauma, community unrest and loss of job. That’s too much pressure on police officers.
President Joe Biden has concluded his first international trip. He declared to America’s European allies that, “America is back at the table,” and his interactions were much cozier than those of his predecessor. How will Utah’s congressional delegation respond to “less drama” in U.S. foreign relations?
Pignanelli:For generations, Utahns were rightfully suspicious of authoritarian regimes. Hopefully the rhetoric will be now matched by legislative actions as our senators and representatives demand a stronger approach to those countries wishing us harm.
Webb: Biden enjoyed a love fest with European allies and the news media covering his trip. He had some “senior moments” when he had a hard time communicating, but I admit it was more comfortable to see a normalization of foreign relations after President Trump’s “America first” policies. But Utah’s delegation should provide oversight to ensure that other nations don’t take advantage of Biden’s kinder, gentler approach.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: email@example.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The mountain bike trail winds through towering pines, verdant meadows, aspen groves and rocky outcroppings. It crosses the creek a couple times before doubling back on itself and ending up where it started. It’s uphill first, followed by a winding 3-mile downhill payoff, and it’s one-way directional so no need to worry about head-on collisions.
As popular as it is and as much as it’s used, you’d think the Slate Creek Mountain Bike Trail near Kamas in northeast Utah’s Summit County has been here forever.
But nope. A year ago it didn’t exist.
Introducing what is believed to be the first on-purpose mountain bike trail constructed on U.S. Forest Service land in Utah.
A winding path to completion
It may seem like a natural — a mountain bike-specific trail on Forest Service land, which of course is by definition mountainous. But for a number of reasons it was a while coming, the primary one being that the Forest Service manages forests, it doesn’t develop them.
If anyone was going to build and maintain a bike trail on their land, it wasn’t going to be them.
Such was the status quo until a little over two years ago, when Nicholas Brown, a forest ranger working out of the Heber-Kamas Ranger District — part of the 2.2-million acre Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest — had a brainstorm:
Let’s get somebody else to build it.
After securing permission from Daniel Jauregui, the district’s head ranger, Brown reached out to the South Summit Trails Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in nearby Oakley, Summit County.
Brown asked Tom Noaker and Les England, the foundation’s president and vice president, if their membership might be interested in laying out a mountain bike trail on Forest Service terrain near the bottom of the Mirror Lake Highway?
It was like asking if they’d like a winning Powerball ticket.
Opportunities like this were precisely why South Summit Trails was started in the first place.
The group’s beginnings are quintessential grassroots. Five years ago, Noaker, England and Howard Sorensen, all of whom live next to each other on a street named Cow Alley in Oakley, were talking over the back fence about the need for more trails in the area.
The goal was trails for all purposes, but particularly for mountain bikes. The men were tired of having to go to Park City — where the extensive trail system on the ski runs keeps getting more crowded — when right out their back door were some of God’s most beautiful mountains.
They wondered how many people felt like they did, so they scheduled a meeting at the Oakley Town Hall. They feared it might be just the three of them, but 42 people showed up. They organized themselves into a proper 501(c)(3) nonprofit, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
Membership had grown to over 100 when Brown called in 2019.
No sooner had he made his offer than volunteers from the foundation were at the site getting busy, not wasting any time in case the Forest Service changed its mind.
They brought in a trail-making machine to make the first cut, chopped roots, trimmed trees, filled holes, moved rocks. All through 2020 the volunteers worked, breathing fresh air while dodging the pandemic. All together, they totaled more than 1,500 man-hours. Everyone worked for the same wage: free. Only the equipment had to be paid for. The entire 5.7-mile trail cost $80,000, all of it raised by donations to the foundation.
The Forest Service assigned ranger Brent Freeman, himself an avid mountain biker, to act as liaison between the two groups. Freeman made sure the trail, while custom-built to mountain bike specs with the requisite curves, berms and loops, would also be multiuse, as per Forest Service requirements, open not only to cyclists but to hikers and everyone else.
Next thing anyone knew, by late last fall the trail was done.
“When these guys say it happened quick, it happened quick. We usually move like wet gunpowder,” quipped Jauregui, the head ranger.
“We saw an opportunity here to get ahead of the curve,” he continued, noting that visitors to the Heber-Kamas District doubled during the pandemic. “The population is coming, so the thinking is, ‘let’s be ready for it.’”
Going forward, the foundation will maintain the trail and the Forest Service will act as landlord.
The public-private collaboration “is a forever relationship, everybody understands that,” said Jauregui. “If we both play our roles, this is not the last piece. This is just the start of something bigger and better.”
To that end, plans are already in place to create an intersecting circuit of mountain bike trails stretching out from the Slate Creek Trail for as much as 40 miles.
And that’s just in this one spot at the forest’s mouth. Who’s to say how many trails might be possible in the more than 8 million acres of national forest in Utah?
Utahns gathered at Washington Square in downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday to celebrate Juneteenth.
The event, which included a march, a vendor market, live music and performances, commemorates the arrival of federal troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives and by unanimous vote in the Senate.
The wall was 12 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base and 2 feet thick at the top. Twenty-three homes and a school that also served as a church and as an amusement hall were inside Fort Union, which the settlers never completed.
The final remnants of the fort remained until the 1990s, when it was demolished for the commercial district now known as Fort Union. The Cox home was believed at that time to be the oldest-standing adobe home in its original location in Utah. The home was dismantled during the construction process after a fight to keep it in its original place failed.
A replica was built a few blocks from the original location. It sits on an acre of grass near the now-closed Babies R Us store at 7188 S. Union Park Ave.
Citing the lack of open storefronts at that area of the shopping center, its owners want to build apartments there, and they're proposing including the memorial as part of an open-space amenity.
A Fort Union neighborhood?
Stephen Usdan, a spokesman for the shopping center's managing owner CCA Acquisitions, told members of the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday that the company wants to develop portions of the Shops at Fort Union that have vacancy into multifamily housing with ground-floor retail space.
"We want to create a desirable place to live, to work and to play, and to substantially grow the tax base," Usdan said.
He said the developers hope to build a “Fort Union neighborhood” that would be “not dissimilar from Sugar House, but only better,” referring to a trendy shopping and housing district in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake County owns a parcel of the land the company wants to develop that also happens to be the site of the Cox home memorial. The County Council is considering a proposal to sell its land as surplus property to Midvale to enable the development.
Usdan said the company hopes to include a portion of the county parcel of land to “maximize presence and access” to the development. The plan “contemplates preservation” of a “substantial portion” of county property as an open-space amenity area with the current monument sign and replica of the Cox home “in one form or another” in a location agreed upon by the Cox family and the Sons of Utah Pioneers, Usdan said.
But the Sons of Utah Pioneers say they weren't included in conversations until just recently.
Robert J. Grow, president-elect of the Temple Quarry Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, told the County Council the historical group heard of plans to potentially move the monument late last month.
“As things currently stand, we would not want the county to surplus this property until negotiations and a potential resolution are further along,” he said in the meeting.
He said the property originally proposed by the developer for the monument's new location is smaller and in a less prominent area.
Grow noted that the area was dedicated by the president of the Latter-day Saints Church on the centennial anniversary of the pioneers entering the valley. When residents settled the original Union, each family needed to build about 100 feet of wall, Grow told the County Council.
“And so it was a massive undertaking. That was Fort Union, and it stood that way for a number of years,” he said.
Grow said the Sons of Utah Pioneers wants the monument to remain a parklike setting where people want to visit. He said he regrets that the group wasn't invited to discussions earlier, but they are working with developers on the issue.
Usdan told the council his company originally proposed moving the monument's location, but has changed its proposal after the Sons of Utah Pioneers opposed it.
He said he believes the current replica home isn't historically accurate and that a better monument could be constructed. A third of the site or more is “basically not usable” for safety purposes, he added.
Derrick Sorensen, Salt Lake County real estate manager, told the County Council that the land is a “nuisance property” for the county, and its interest lies within its historic components and their preservation.
“Although we're not interested in being a part of the ownership there, we are interested in the preservation of this historic (place), and it's important to Midvale,” Sorensen said, explaining that the land creates a burden for county parks and recreation crews to maintain.
Sorensen said he hopes the city, county, builder and historical groups can work together to come to an agreement on the land.
The County Council held off on taking a vote to sell the land and will consider the issue at a later meeting while negotiations continue.
Now that Juneteenth has been recognized as national holiday, what would it take for it to become a legal holiday in Utah?
The simple answer is passage of a bill in both the House and the Senate of the Utah Legislature that is then signed into law by the governor.
Then Juneteenth could join other Utah legal holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Independence Day, Pioneer Day and Christmas.
State statute on legal holidays also allows observance of “all days which may be set apart by the President of the United States or the governor of this state by proclamation as days of fast or thanksgiving.”
Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of federal troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. This was 2 1⁄2 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed into law legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives and by unanimous vote in the Senate.
Juneteenth is a ‘commemorative period’ in Utah statute
Juneteenth Freedom Day currently appears in Utah statute as a “commemorative period,” meaning it is a day to be “commemorated annually.” Other such examples are Utah Flag Day, Bill of Rights Day or Utah History Day at the Capitol.
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the first Black woman to serve in the Utah Legislature, sponsored HB338, which was passed in 2016 and added Juneteenth as a commemorative period.
Hollins said Friday she was “thrilled” to see legislation pass and be signed into law establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday “and I would love to see it pass in Utah. I would love to see that kind of holiday and that’s something that I think is definitely worth looking at here.”
A number of people have already reached out to Hollins to ask if she wouId consider sponsoring legislation to make Juneteenth a legal holiday in Utah.
“I’m willing to look at possibly doing that,” she said.
Confusion over whether Juneteenth is a state holiday
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent declaration of June 19 as Juneteenth in Utah stirred confusion with some people believing it was a declaration of a state holiday.
“It’s true that Juneteenth became a federal holiday today, but it is NOT a state holiday in Utah. That requires approval from the state Legislature,” a statement by Cox’s office released Thursday said. “The declaration issued by Gov. Cox is a recognition of a cultural celebration and not a holiday designation.”
The statement noted Utah offices would be open for business Friday.
Cox’s declaration acknowledges “that there is still progress to be made ensuring racial equality for all.”
In May, the governing board of Utah’s public colleges and universities urged state schools to celebrate Juneteenth.
Another call for Juneteenth observances
A resolution to support and celebrate Juneteenth within the Utah System of Higher Education received unanimous approval of the Utah Board of Higher Education on May 22.
The resolution “acknowledges that failing to affirm and celebrate the diverse cultural identities and histories that exist in Utah and its institutions reinforces systemic racism, trauma and erasures that impact students, staff and faculty.”
The resolution says in part that “Juneteenth is an opportunity for the board to reflect on the previous year’s efforts and renew the system and institutional commitment to closing opportunity and attainment gaps for African American, African and Black students, staff, and faculty persisting within Utah higher education.”
Utah’s long road to recognizing MLK Day by name
Utah was among the last states to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a legal holiday. Federal legislation to create a holiday honoring King was signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.
In 1986, Coretta Scott King made a personal appeal to the Utah Legislature to establish a holiday in the state in her slain husband’s name. Lawmakers instead chose Human Rights Day, arguing that other people besides King were instrumental in human rights efforts.
Utah has seen 411,610 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 2,330 total deaths as of Sunday, according to the Utah Department of Health. That’s an increase of 249 cases from Saturday. Two additional deaths were reported.
Here are the latest numbers.
Total number of COVID-19 cases: 411,610
Total reported people tested: 2,761,298
Total COVID-19 hospitalizations:17,271
Current COVID-19 hospitalizations: 157
Total COVID-19 deaths: 2,330
Single-day high for reported cases: 4,672 (Dec. 31)
Single-day high for reported deaths: 30 (Dec. 17 and Jan. 21)
The effort to vaccinate Utahns against COVID-19 is shifting away from mass vaccination sites. Now, vaccines are being made more widely available in doctor’s offices, pharmacies and temporary walk-up clinics set up in businesses, churches, communities and soon, at summer festivals.
A recent audit found one state agency lacks a “culture of control” that led to mistakes such as an employee getting reimbursed $7,400 in mileage for travel in a state-owned vehicle.
The Utah Department of Agriculture has gone through four commissioners in five years, Jesse Martinson, senior supervisor of the Legislature-ordered audit, told lawmakers during an interim meeting this week.
“One thing that we are concerned about as we did the audit work is what seems to be kind of a history of oversight weaknesses and control issues at the department,” said audit manager Benjamin Buys.
“We feel like this is an issue that's been ongoing for many years,” he said, noting that Commissioner Craig Buttars recently took the helm after being appointed by Gov. Spencer Cox. Before that, Buttars served as county executive for Cache County for six years.
Buttars replaces Logan Wilde, who took the post after the department's former commissioner, Kerry Gibson, resigned to run for Utah's 1st Congressional District, and was later audited for “improper” travel expenses, bonuses and other allegations of misuse of public funds.
In the case of the employee getting thousands in mileage reimbursement funds, Martinson said the employee paid back the money after the error was identified.
But the incident is one example of a lack of oversight and control of state vehicles, the auditor said.
After the employee signed and submitted a mileage reimbursement — despite reimbursement only being available for travel in personal vehicles — approval processes were bypassed as the employee's supervisor did not sign off on it, and the division director delegated its approval to a subordinate who “stamped the form” without the director’s review, Martinson said.
State-owned vehicles at the department are also getting underutilized despite a high price tag, he said.
The auditors used GPS data to analyze nine weeks of vehicle usage data from January to March 2021 and found that some vehicles in the department’s fleet were only used once during that period.
“Since the department has averaged nearly $1 million per year for state vehicles over the last five years, management needs to determine the correct number of vehicles to maximize taxpayer funds and to avoid having vehicles sitting idle,” Martinson said.
The audit also found that the department has “failed to fully comply with federal grant requirements. We found some employees appearing to charge excess time to two separate federal grants,” according to Martinson.
That has auditors worried the state could risk losing federal money this year. The Department of Agriculture plans to receive $8.37 million from the federal government in 2022 — 14% of the department's funding.
“These grants are for programs such as animal disease tracing, controlling invasive species, pesticide enforcement, and suppressing Mormon crickets and grasshoppers. (The department) should ensure that controls over grants are in place so that funding for these important programs is not put at risk,” auditors wrote in the report.
Auditors also believe the department doesn't understand how its programs are funded on a fee basis, and the fees administrators ask the Legislature to approve each year are based on incomplete information, according to Martinson.
Between 2016 and 2022, the department operated at a deficit that grew to $2.5 million, he said. But auditors believe the programs could instead be fully funded by fees.
Martinson said the regulatory services division of the department also needs to improve oversight, as violations often aren't being resolved.
“Two regulatory programs, retail food and weights and measures are not sufficiently holding establishments accountable for inspection violations. The retail food program does not track how many critical violations have been resolved,” Martinson said.
Critical violations include those that contribute to foodborne illnesses, including cooking, reheating, cooling, heating and sanitization controls. In 2020, inspectors conducted 1,334 routine inspections where they found at least one critical violation, and 457 of them did not receive follow-up inspections, according to Martinson.
Auditors recommended implementing policies for violation enforcement.
Buttars said the department is committed to solving the issues and has been working to do so since he took the position.
“I believe that some of these issues, we were not familiar with when they were brought to our attention but others were, and I do feel like there has been an effort in the department to make the auditors aware of some of the deficiencies that we have. We're well aware of them and we feel that many of them we've already taken steps to correct,” he said.
“Of course we see the high level of turnover at the top of the department, and that was certainly brought to my attention before I accepted this position. … But it’s an issue that I know there is the will to change there, and it is my commitment that with our other employees, I know we're all on the same team, we all look at this in the same way, and we all have the desire to make the corrections that are needed here,” Buttars added.