When I recruited Tom Westmoreland to run for a city council position in early 2013 I did so because he seemed like a solid conservative. He was coming from the private sector. He had a long history of working to promote conservative political issues such as gaining state control of Federal lands in Utah. He seemed to know a lot of other conservatives in the state, which would’ve been a great asset to our small, backwards city. And best of all, he openly stated that one of his goals, if he ever got into office, was to not go soft like so many of the other politicians he had helped get elected over the years. He even had copies of the U.S. Constitution hanging on his walls at home.
(Tom’s Eagle Mountain City bio)
During the campaign we had one exchange in particular that reaffirmed my faith in him. He said that during one of his door-to-door visits a resident asked him about his position on the city’s much-loathed rodeo. He replied that he “didn’t think government should be in the entertainment business.” That was exactly the right answer. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Tom to change his tune once he got into office.
Pony Express Days Rodeo Corruption
Historically, Eagle Mountain’s rodeo and other special events have been the city’s biggest money pits. For years our former mayor, Heather Jackson, and her employees used them as excuses to use taxpayer funds for their own personal entertainment. According to Lianne Pengra, a former city official who used to help organize the city’s events, over half of the approximately 6,000 rodeo tickets that were issued in 2012 were given away for free by the mayor and others to their friends, families, local media outlets, and visiting politicians.
In addition to free event tickets, many of these people were also given access to the city’s VIP tent where they got all-you-can-eat meals at taxpayer expense. Not surprisingly, this tent was closed to the public that actually paid for their meals.
The lost ticket revenue and outrageous event expenses contributed to annual losses which made many of the city’s more frugal residents extremely angry. Eagle Mountain’s rodeo epitomized government corruption at its worst on the local level.
But instead of killing it as the vast majority of the city’s residents wanted, Tom decided to prop it up with even more taxpayer subsidies after telling voters on the campaign trail that he “didn’t think government should be in the entertainment business.”
Shortly after he took office in January 2014 the city council started debating the future of its money-losing rodeo and during this debate Tom told me how impressed he was by the city’s rodeo supporters. He said that since they were extremely well-organized, he wanted to “help them help themselves” by also supporting them financially with taxpayer money. The most egregious contributions were the city’s payments for the rodeo award purse ($14,000) and their private PRCA rodeo organization dues (~$1,400).
When the contentious issue of who would pay for the rodeo bleachers came up, Wendy Lojik, a rodeo organizer, had this to say in a February 18th, 2014 city council meeting:
Complete meeting minutes:
http://www.utah.gov/pmn/files/119193.pdf (see page 9 for context)
Bleacher purchase agreement:
(Item 1 mentions that an unnamed third-party (the Rodeo Committee) would be responsible for the bulk of the purchase price of the bleachers. The third-party was never named even though it should have been.)
Excerpt from bleacher contract:
The city explicitly sold its financial support of the rodeo to the public by telling everyone that these taxpayer subsidies would be going to a 501(c)3 charity. This was presumably done to make these contributions legal. The following excerpt from the meeting validates this:
The problem is that it didn’t appear as if the Rodeo Committee was operating as a legally recognized 501(c)3 organization at the time they received the donations. According to the IRS website, tax-exempt status is normally only effective as of the date of the original application, if it was filed in a timely manner.
In fact, according to a July 5, 2016 phone call I had with an IRS tax-exempt official, the Rodeo Committee didn’t file any application to become a tax-exempt organization until March 2016, two years after they said they were operating as a 501(c)3! This may be why Jared Gray, the current president of the Rodeo Committee (aka: Pony Express Events), has never responded to my requests for copies of their original application, which he has told city officials were delayed by the IRS.
When I pressed the IRS representative to verify that no previous applications had, in fact, been filed, even under other names, he definitively stated to me over the phone that they had only filed one application and that it was submitted in March 2016. Either he was in error or the Rodeo Committee has been misleading the city in order to cover-up its legal problems.
If you want to read more about this scandal, you can find the background info here: (http://eagleshare.org/2016/05/20/rodeo-donations/). (As more details emerge, they will be released in an upcoming report.)
To make matters worse, Utah State law explicitly states that charities cannot solicit donations unless they are exempt or registered with the state Division of Consumer Protection. According to my reading of the law the Rodeo Committee does not qualify as an exempt organization, and it does not appear as if they registered either.
After verifying to a city resident over the phone that they were, in fact, not complying with the law at all, the Utah State Division of Consumer Protection sent them a kindly worded letter alerting them to their need to register.
What this means is that the city gave taxpayer money to a group of private citizens who were not even legally allowed to solicit donations in the state. And Tom helped facilitate it!
But wait, it gets even worse! The Rodeo Committee also reneged on its promise to use its own funds to pay for the rodeo bleachers as promised by Wendy Lojik. Tom along with two other council members voted to use proceeds from the city’s recently sold utility companies to pay off the cost of the bleachers for them, thus cheating taxpayers again and probably breaking the law.
Excerpts from the December 1, 2015 City Council Meeting minutes:
Source: http://www.utah.gov/pmn/files/200835.pdf (pg. 9, item 19)
(Note how the city’s minutes never actually mention that they are covering a private debt. We can thank our city recorder, Fionnuala Kofoed, for this obfuscation. It’s also worth noting that the city had absolutely no obligation to pay this debt according to the terms of the bleacher purchase contract–see the second underlined portion in the excerpt of the bleacher contract.)
I’ve been watching Eagle Mountain politics long enough to know that this bait and switch was probably planned from the very beginning by our new mayor, Chris Pengra, and Wendy Lojik, the founder of the Pony Express Days Rodeo Committee. It makes you wonder how Lojik got such a sweetheart deal.
Could it have anything to do with the fact that she is the owner and publisher of our local paper, the Crossroads Journal, and that politicians always want to be loved by the press?
Linked-In profile for Wendy Lojik, owner of Crossroads Journal:
One interesting fact about Lojik “the publisher” is that her paper steadfastly refuses to cover any political scandals in the city, including the one that I will cover next. Maybe that’s why the city’s politicians have been so willing to subsidize her expensive horse hobby . . . .
Eagle Mountain City’s Credit Card Abuses
Tom’s votes in support of the city’s money-losing rodeo stands in stark contrast to his complete non-support of my attempts to get some accountability for the city’s other pork like its outrageous spending at area restaurants and department stores.
Check out this listing of the restaurants and stores where our city’s employees shopped with our taxpayer-funded credit cards:
When I first started looking into the city’s credit card abuses in early 2014 I had an extremely tough time getting documents from the city in a timely manner and at a reasonable price. But since I now had a friend on the council I thought I’d ask for his help.
I had originally requested four years of credit card statements (2010-2013) from the city. In response, the city only gave me two years’ worth of statements (2010-2011) and charged me more for them than they had originally estimated for the whole batch. Since I couldn’t afford any more of their exorbitant fees, I went to Tom to ask for his help in getting the rest of them for free. In order to prove that it was in the public interest for the city to release these statements without charge, I gave Tom copies of all the statements I had received to-date so he could see for himself the massive spending problems within the city. To my surprise, he denied my request for help.
It was pretty obvious Tom didn’t want to help because he thought he would ruin his working relationship with the city’s bureaucrats if he helped me get information that would embarrass them.
It took me a while but I was eventually able to raise enough donations from other people to pay for the rest of the statements without Tom’s help. And once I finished my report which analyzed and documented the city’s spending problems, I gave Tom an advance copy and asked for a meeting with him to discuss my findings.
It took Tom over two months to find the time in his schedule to meet with me and when he finally did drop by my house a week before the all-important 2015 budget vote, he confessed that he had never read the report. When I asked him whether he would support a ban on using taxpayer money for food purchases, he told me that he thought the issue needed further study because he “didn’t want to create any unintended consequences.”
This was an outrageous statement for him to make since I had kept him in the loop regarding the city’s restaurant spending from the very beginning. And I find it very hard to believe that it would take anyone more than 18 months to figure out that our city employees have a serious eating disorder. Besides, there is absolutely no need for taxpayers to pay for the meals of public officials when we already pay them generous salaries which they can use to pay for their own food. It’s what the rest of us do in the private sector.
The next insult from Tom came a week later when I confronted him and the other council members in the actual 2015 public budget hearing. After reviewing the city’s credit card spending in my public statement and explaining why we couldn’t trust our employees to make any food purchases, I asked the city council to remove all the food money from the city’s budget. Here’s the audio of Tom’s reply:
In his rambling statement Tom basically said that he and the other council members had already addressed most of issues I had identified in my report and that he was willing to entertain further discussion about the city’s food expenditures. But he also stated that he wasn’t willing to do it during this budget cycle because he thought the issue needed more study. Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? . . . unless you consider these facts:
- He had 18 months to study the issue and didn’t.
- City council members and employees still eat taxpayer-funded meals.
- The city is still withholding dozens of credit card statements, which Jeremy Cook, the city attorney, promised to turn over in a State Records Committee appeal hearing, twice.
- As of July 10, 2016 the city is still not disclosing its restaurant purchases on the state’s transparency website as required by law.
- No city employee has ever been fired or prosecuted for misusing the city’s credit cards at area restaurants or department stores.
- City vehicles could still be spotted at area restaurants outside the city’s limits, even after Tom declared the problems largely solved.
At best, Tom is intentionally choosing to be ignorant of the city’s corruption so he doesn’t have to deal with it. At worst, he has become part of the problem. And it might even be both.
Tom Westmoreland was obviously a “campaign conservative” when he ran for office because he has been anything but conservative when it has come to dealing with much of the city’s pork. When Wendy Lojik, the publisher of the Crossroads Journal, used her background in cosmetology and publishing to dress up the city’s rodeo pork, Tom thought it looked good enough to vote for, at least twice.
It took him less than 18 months to go native once he got into government. He now defends the city’s pork while fighting the residents who want to eliminate it. In essence, he has become the kind of politician he used to loathe.
The most disappointing aspect of Tom’s time in office is that I have never been able to get him to publicly or privately condemn our city employees’ outrageous spending and numerous cover-ups. When I asked him why he wouldn’t, he said he “didn’t think it was productive to introduce emotion into the debate.” What he really meant to say was that he didn’t think it was worth discussing facts that would make the city’s employees angry. It’s pretty obvious that Tom cares much more about his relationship with the city’s bureaucrats than he cares about the voters who put him into office. It’s a real shame because I thought he was the perfect candidate when I first asked him to run for office.