Interagency Feud in Utah Returns to Court

By JONNY BONNER

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — A former aide claims in court that the director of Utah’s Commerce Department fired her unjustly in a brouhaha between his agency and the attorney general’s office, where her husband worked.

Rebekah Conner sued Utah, its Commerce Department and its Executive Director Francine Giani on Nov. 5, in Salt Lake County Court.

Giani, a Republican, was appointed to the agency in 2005.

Conner was hired as her administrative assistant the same year.

Conner married nonparty Alan Conner, a police detective, in 2008. He began working as a special agent for the attorney general’s office, investigating Internet crimes against children, in 2010.

Conner claims that Giani had a “troubled relationship” with two attorneys general, nonparties Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow.

Shurtleff and Swallow, both Republicans, were arrested and charged with a total of 23 counts of criminal public corruption in 2014, accused of accepting gifts that included beach vacations from businessmen in trouble with regulators.

Charges against Shurtleff were dismissed without prejudice in July this year, at the request of the prosecution.

Swallow still faces bribery and corruption charges. He resigned in November 2013, after the charges were filed. Shurtleff was his predecessor.

Shurtleff, who served 12 years as attorney general and handpicked Swallow, agreed to  cooperate with state prosecutors and may be called as a witness.

According to Conner’s lawsuit, Giani testified that she distrusted Shurtleff and Swallow, and had “good times” and “bad times” with nonparty Kirk Torgensen, a former chief deputy attorney general.

Conner said the two agencies had several public disagreements, including the investigation and prosecution of nonparty Rick Koerber, an alleged real estate fraudster who was accused of operating a $100 million Ponzi scheme; consumer protection law enforcement; and Swallow’s plan to move the Division of Consumer Protection from the Commerce Department to his office.

(The Tenth Circuit in August this year reversed dismissal of the charges against Koerber.)

None of the disagreements, Conner says, were related to her husband’s task force.

Conner says Giani fired her on Jan. 9, 2013 because Conner’s husband worked for the attorney general’s office and “because of a conversation Conner had had with her husband, which conveyed publicly known information and which touched on a matter of public concern.”

The lawsuit continues: “Giani told Conner that it was too uncomfortable working with Conner knowing that she was married to ‘one of them,’ meaning members of the AG’s Office.”

Alan Conner in 2012 helped serve several search warrants on reiki massage parlors, outside of his work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce.

The operation, about which he told his wife, involved coordination between agencies, including the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

Alan Conner called DOPL at his wife’s suggestion, the lawsuit states. Ultimately, a raid by the attorney general’s office, which involved human trafficking issues, was called off because it had lost the element of surprise because of DOPL’s involvement.

Her husband was not disciplined, Rebekah Conner says, and “the matter was quickly resolved and determined to be an unfortunate coincidence.”

Conner says she was not warned, cited or reprimanded before she was fired. She says Giani believed that she, Conner, funneled confidential information through her husband to Shurtleff and Swallow that could somehow be used against Giani.

Just before firing her, Giani told Conner, “maybe we can’t work together” and that it was “uncomfortable for her knowing that Conner was married to ‘one of them’ and said that was just the way it was,” according to the lawsuit.

Giani previously served as interim director of the state’s oft-criticized Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control. (The Utah Legislature asked this year why employee turnover at state-run liquor stores was 33 percent a year.)

A jury in August awarded Conner $250,000 in a separate wrongful termination lawsuit against the defendants, filed in 2013.

The jury found that Conner had been fired for her “political affiliation.”

That award was vacated in September, after a motion for a judgment on pleadings by Giani’s attorneys.

But on Friday, Judge Matthew Bates revised the order, saying the verdict stood but that an issue of governmental immunity was not put to the jury.

“When you sue the government, you know governmental immunity is always something you have to deal with,” Bates said. “You are suing an entity that has the power to immunize itself from lawsuits.”

Conner says in the new lawsuit that Giani “speculated under oath that Ms. Conner might have been a Democrat.”  

Giani and her agency did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Conner seeks damages for breach of contract, bad faith and civil rights violations.

She is represented by C. Reed Brown of Washington, Utah, and Elizabeth Grimshaw of Phoenixville, Pa.

Grimshaw declined comment on the lawsuit.

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