Investigation Complete: Do Draper City Councilors Have a Conflict of Interest with Proposed Draper Mountain Development?
May 23, 2019 02:55PM
By Mimi Darley Dutton
The end of Lake Bluff Drive atop SunCrest at 2100 East where on approximately 83 acres, known as the Draper Mountain Ridge Estates Project, was the subject of the independent counsel’s investigation into potential conflicts of interest between developers Shaun and Ollie Michel and the Draper City Council. (City Journals)
By Mimi Darley Dutton | [email protected]
Similar to the Mueller report, Draper had its own independent counsel investigation, concluding with the public release of the counsel’s findings in a report with some redacted names and information.
A potential SunCrest development on approximately 83 acres, known as the Draper Mountain Ridge Estates Project, was the subject of the independent counsel’s investigation into potential conflicts of interest between developers Shaun and Ollie Michel and the Draper City Council. The address given for the development is 2100 East Lake Bluff Drive.
The project was a public hearing item on the March 5 council agenda. Mayor Troy Walker had emailed each council member prior to that meeting, asking them to disclose any connections they had with the developers. All council members responded directly to Walker’s email with the exception of Michele Weeks, who instead chose to send her response to City Manager David Dobbins. Alan Summerhays had previously recused himself from voting on the project over concern of a potential conflict of interest.
Councilmember Mike Green asked for postponement rather than a vote on the project and Councilmember Tasha Lowery expressed that there was “enough doubt to proceed” and she felt that the council’s “hand was forced to do an investigation.”
Attorney Kristin VanOrman of the Strong & Hanni law firm was hired to conduct the investigation and prepare a report. She billed the city $5,620 for about 28 hours of work. VanOrman was hired by the city in the recent past for another investigation involving Weeks.
VanOrman’s report was made a public document under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) after the Draper City Council voted to make it so, with some names and information redacted, at the May 7 city council meeting.
VanOrman interviewed the mayor, city manager and the entire Draper City Council as well as Shaun and Ollie Michel and their attorney Bruce Baird. There are at least six redacted names of individuals whom she also interviewed.
“I do not believe that the Michels have done anything illegal in the present case. However, in my opinion, they have created clear conflicts of interest with both Alan Summerhays and Michele Weeks…It is my opinion that both Mr. Summerhays and Ms. Weeks recuse themselves from voting on the Mountain Ridge Estate Project,” VanOrman wrote.
She reported that the potential conflict between Summerhays and the Michels was one of coincidence. While the project has been under consideration by the council and revised several times in recent years, Summerhays was more recently in favor of the project with the revisions.
In December 2018, Summerhays’ son was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed. That son sought treatment for paralysis at Neurowerx, a rehabilitation company. Only after Summerhays’ son had researched, found and was accepted for treatment at Neurowerx did the Summerhays family realized that Shaun Michel serves on the board of directors. Meanwhile, Shaun Michel had tried contacting Summerhays “a number of times…in efforts to promote the project prior to his son’s accident,” the report says.
“Summerhays did not know that (Shaun) Michel was on the board of directors at the time. Further, his son had already independently decided to receive treatment with Neurowerx while in the hospital…Councilmember Summerhays later learned that Michel sits on the board of directors and wondered if his son was receiving any special favors due to the connection with the project. This led to Summerhays recusing himself from voting on the project,” VanOrman wrote.
It came to light that either Shaun Michel or a member of the Neurowerx board had reached out to members of the city council in an effort to get the development approved.
“In June 2018, (Shaun) Michel attended a board of directors meeting for Neurowerx. A focus of the meeting was getting funding for Neurowerx…Michel stated that he would make a significant donation to the organization if he could work out the deal with the SunCrest project,” VanOrman’s report said. She then detailed that either Shaun Michel or another member of the Neurowerx board had reached out to council members Lowery, Green and Marsha Vawdrey. “It is clear that Shaun Michel used his position on the board of Neurowerx to assist with lobbying his efforts with Draper City…The council members handled the communications appropriately and no conflicts were created,” VanOrman wrote.
“I think she (VanOrman) did her best. I was exonerated. This has been a tough one for the last year and a half,” Summerhays said of the report. Regarding if he’ll recuse himself from voting on the project, he said, “Whatever is the right thing to do, I will do. If it’s recuse myself, I will…it’s a good project, but it’s not worth me doing something illegal to pass something,” he said.
VanOrman noted that in September 2018, when Weeks was running for office in the State Legislature, Shaun Michel approached Weeks and gave her a donation of approximately $1,000 for her campaign, but Weeks did not accept the check and sent it back to Michel.
“The potential conflicts of interest regarding Councilmember Michele Weeks involve three separate incidents,” VanOrman wrote, indicating that those included one of Weeks’ sons going on a fishing trip with Shaun Michel, one of Weeks’ sons participating in Youthlinc, a nonprofit organization to which the Michel Foundation donates between $30,000 to $50,000 annually, and “a $1,000 donation made to Ms. Weeks’ Teacher Appreciation Night event.”
VanOrman felt that Weeks should have declined the fishing trip for her son, regardless of the monetary value or lack thereof. Regarding Youthlinc, she wrote that Weeks’ son “was not sponsored by the Michels, and has not received any financial aid.” But VanOrman did write, “I believe there were potential ethics violations by Michele Weeks in connection with the Teacher Appreciation Night and the Michels…it is my opinion that a complaint to the Draper City Ethics Commission is warranted, or if no such commission has been established, such a complaint could be filed with the Utah State Political Subdivisions Ethics Review Commission.”
Weeks has organized the teacher appreciation event at the aquarium in recent years, but for personal reasons, she did not organize it last year. According to the report, however, Weeks offered to give the donor information she had for the dinner to the Jordan Valley Teachers Association, a 501(c)3 organization that offered to assist with the dinner that ended up costing $8,300. “They then paid for the dinner from Ms. Weeks’ donors…the Michel Foundation donated $1,000 to the Jordan Education Foundation…There is no doubt that the Michels knew they were donating to Ms. Weeks’ event…there is no doubt that Ms. Weeks knew of the donation as she provided all the donors directly to the Teachers Association. I believe there is sufficient information to support the fact that the Michels donated substantial funds to an event founded by — and for all intents and purposes — organized by Michele Weeks. In my opinion, this clearly represents a conflict of interest,” the report says.
Weeks said of the report, “I thought it was very biased and misinformed. This is the third time that the city council has tried to accuse me of doing wrong with the teacher appreciation event. I think it’s done because they’re jealous because it’s a wonderful event. Instead of chastising me, they should see if they could become part of it to help appreciate our teachers. The first two times I was found innocent of any wrongdoing. I emailed the Lieutenant Governor’s office (in response to the VanOrman report) and asked if I had broken the code that she (VanOrman) says I broke, 10-3-208. The Lieutenant Governor’s office replied ‘not that they could see.’ It’s not my money, it went to an event, not to my campaign or to enrich my family’s life. For Ms. VanOrman to say that is wrongdoing — it’s a strange stretch, but it will be up to the state ethics board again.”
Asked if she’ll continue to fundraise for the teacher appreciation event, Weeks replied, “In the future, if time allows, I’d love to bring this event back to fruition.” She explained that it normally happens in May but it’s not happening this year, and the donation in question happened last year.
“I have since found a conflict of interest with Ms. VanOrman’s firm. During this whole investigation, UTA was negotiating with firms for possible legal advice. These contracts go up to $1 million. Ms. VanOrman’s firm, Strong & Hanni, was one being considered. I believe this could possibly be a conflict of interest that needed to be disclosed because of the potential connection between Strong & Hanni, the UTA and Mayor Walker’s connection with UTA, being part of the board and also chair of the auditing department for UTA,” Weeks said.
When asked if she will recuse herself from voting on the Michel project, Weeks said, “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong, so at that time I’ll make the decision, but I won’t recuse myself because of this report. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Separately, there was also an incident noted in the report where a female employee of Draper City had her purse stolen, and when Shaun Michel learned of it, he gave her a purse and told her “make sure you check the pockets.” She found $50 but did not accept the purse or the money and returned it immediately. The report said that city employee doesn’t have voting power or influence over the council members.
Regarding the next step in the process, Dobbins said, “The city council will decide what, if any, additional steps will be taken.” He added that because Draper does not have its own ethics commission, if it is reviewed, it would be at the state level. “This application has not been scheduled yet for final action,” he said.