By Sam Allen
Note: If Mayor John Curtis didn’t have the full backing of the state’s press, he would be the most unelectable candidate running for Utah’s open 3rd Congressional District seat . His true record is so full of lurking scandals that if he was ever put under a microscope and the lab results were publicized, there’s a good chance he would lose. 3rd District voters tend not to like politicians who are morally compromised.
By most accounts John Curtis is one of the most popular mayors Provo City has ever had. His own website touts his 94 percent approval rating and he has a very loyal following among the press. The problem is that no one can be as perfect or as popular as Mayor Curtis’ marketing makes him out to be.
If you do a little digging into his actual record–and it doesn’t take much–you can find all kinds of scandalous, but verifiable, stories that should have made it into the press but didn’t.
What I’ve learned, so far, is that Curtis isn’t the conservative candidate he claims to be. Nor is he the compassionate progressive he acts like in front of more moderate audiences. He is something entirely different. And if the voters of the 3rd Congressional District knew more about the other side of John Curtis, I doubt they would want him to represent them in Washington.
Let’s start small by examining some of the political friends he has endorsed in recent elections:
Endorsed Politically Corrupt Candidates
In 2013 I wrote a 61-page report documenting many of the misdeeds of Eagle Mountain Mayor Heather Jackson. This included her regular use of city employees for babysitting, taxpayer-funded vacations to PRCA rodeos, and illegal transfers of utility funds into the city’s general fund.
Once this report went public and her popularity plummeted, she went to her political friends in Utah County during her re-election campaign and asked them for endorsements. Curtis obliged and wrote her a flattering endorsement which was widely distributed throughout the city.
To make matters worse, Mayor Curtis also endorsed Jeff Buhman, the Utah County Attorney who wouldn’t prosecute any of her crimes even though we had mountains of evidence against her, including her own recorded comments in public meetings which amounted to an admission of her crimes.
Buhman is also well-known in Utah County circles for his malicious prosecutions, the latest being Provo City Councilman Steve Turley who was eventually acquitted of all felony counts.
Mayor Curtis’ instincts when it comes to his political friends are truly horrible.
Provo City Scandals
A couple months ago I met a resident of Provo City who is also a local political watchdog. As a public engineer he’s far better equipped than most to know how government should work and how it often doesn’t. These are some of the scandals that he personally uncovered in Provo.
At different times in his political career Curtis has changed his political affiliation and ideological beliefs. When he was running as a Democrat in 2000 he championed endorsements from organizations like the Utah Education Association (liberal labor union) but now that he’s running as a Republican he tries to portray himself as gun-friendly conservative. Not everyone buys his marketing though since Curtis only got about 9 percent of the vote at the recent Republican Party convention to nominate a replacement for Rep. Chaffetz.
One of Curtis’ more notable examples of political hypocrisy is his environmental record. When he first took office in 2010, Provo City had just received a 2009 EPA audit report that found it was out of compliance with federal clean water regulations that were designed to protect bodies of water like Provo River and Utah Lake. It’s normally not a big deal if a city takes corrective action, but six years later, in 2015, the EPA conducted another audit and found that the city was still out of compliance!
It’s pretty hard to let a known problem like this go unaddressed for so many years unless you truly don’t care. (The city finally came into compliance, just in time for the Republican primary this year.)
Provo City Housing Authority
In 2013 and 2014 the engineer I have referenced also uncovered and stopped what appeared to be a sophisticated scam in which the Provo City Housing Authority (PCHA) was diverting a portion of the money which was appropriated for disabled housing assistance and spending it elsewhere. This money should have been going to the approximately 900 low income households in Provo which needed assistance. These senior citizens, veterans, people with disabilities, and families with special needs children needlessly suffered as a result of the PCHA’s actions.
It wasn’t until he filed a GRAMA request (Utah state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act) to discover: (1) who made the decision to reduce the benefits and (2) where the money was going, that the benefits were miraculously restored. Before his GRAMA request was submitted he said the PCHA reported they were operating under a $369,000 per year deficit. After the GRAMA request was submitted he said the PCHA Board showed it had a surplus of millions of dollars — at its next meeting!
Recently, this engineer has also been examining other cases of suspected PCHA corruption, especially as it relates to the awarding of housing construction bids to high bidders instead of to low bidders as required by state law. The PCHA tried to reclassify some of these public bid documents as protected in order to hide them from him. It lost its appeal against him at the State Records Committee in November 2015.
Mayor John Curtis appoints all the members of the PCHA board of directors and he hired its executive director. He was also reportedly contacted for help on these matters but refused to answer phone calls and emails.
Building and Development Fraud
In 2009, just before John Curtis became mayor, Provo City attempted to allow a developer to open a gravel pit in a mapped Geologic Hazard Zone (Slate Canyon, a Wasatch fault area) above an existing residential community, without going through the public notice process required by law. The engineer wrote an articulate email that succinctly summarized the engineering principles involved which convinced the previous Provo City administration to stop the project.
An excerpt from this 2009 email follows:
I have been reading some shocking news about some potential mining of a gravel pit on … my backyard. I hope I am wrong, but it may be a football field away from my back porch.
I wish I had a chance to express my personal opinion about this issue or attend a public meeting.
Why should I be concerned? … after all, it is just a few hundred thousand cubic yards of gravel being removed from a mapped Geologic Hazard Zone. Geology 101 teaches the basic principles of grading around a mapped Geologic Hazard area:
(1) Never load the top of a debris flow basin (fill slopes – import material in)
(2) Never unload the toe of a debris flow basin (cuts – export material out)
(3) Do not add moisture (upset the hydrologic balance of the mountain
(4) Analyze the slope stability during a seismic event
With the exception of item 1, any material borrow area will create a situation where 2, 3 and 4 could eventually make a stable slope become unstable and without warnings, create a mudslide or worse, a landslide. Muds will fill basements (Draper, 2009) and lives may be lost (Logan, 2009).
Why should I be concerned? … well, 1.5 million tons of material means approximately 3,306,933,933 lbs. of dry weight gravel. Rounding off is about 3.4 million pounds of material excavated out of a stable mountain and transported out by … 844,683 single trailer trucks or 422,341 double trailers.
If we considered the mining over a period of 10 years, this is about 115 double trailers per day for 10 years. With road grades exceeding 8% slopes, chances are that those 115 double trailers per day will be fully loaded and traveling downhill at a fast speed. The roads around this area were not design for such loads or stopping and breaking distances.
Very likely, those speed radar signs or “CHILD AT PLAY” signs will not be sufficient to stop a collision between a loaded truck and a child crossing the road and on his/her way to an Elementary school. The height of a bumper truck is about the same height of a child’s head. Such collisions are always fatal.
Why should I be concerned? … I believe that every possible type of underground utilities has been placed around this area: HIGH pressure gas lines, HIGH pressure water lines, HIGH voltage overhead power lines, etc. … chances are that we may suffer some minor interruptions due to excavators hitting said pipes. In a perfect world, that is not going to happen, … only in a perfect world.
Fast forward to 2017. Now that John Curtis is the mayor, the city is allowing construction of high density housing in this mapped Geologic Hazard Zone despite its well-known problems and safety hazards. And it’s allowing the developer to build townhomes directly under the high-voltage power lines in the area. Surely, that’s a disaster in the making!
What would happen if there were an earthquake on the nearby fault and some of the high voltage power lines dropped on the homes? Would they start a fire? Would they kill the residents inside?
What would happen if there were an extremely heavy snowmelt in nearby Slate Canyon and it flooded the area? Would it cause the ground, which is a debris flow basin, to slump, and would this movement also rupture the high pressure gas line which is reportedly in the same utility corridor as the high voltage power lines? Also, could this slumping affect the integrity of the power poles which had some of their surrounding dirt excavated and hauled away to make room for the development?
(Note how there is only a cone of dirt left around the poles. This might make it harder for maintenance personnel to service or replace the poles in the future. The original ground level in this part of the development was at the top of the cone.)
And how are the firefighters going to fight any potential fires that start under these high voltage power lines? Will they use water or is that too dangerous? Will they have to use expensive fire retardant foam instead? And will they have to store it on site so they can be sure to have enough of it on hand if there is ever a fire?
If the known geologic hazards were severe enough in 2009 to stop a gravel pit from being allowed in the area, why is the city now allowing high-density housing to be built here? The risk with the high-density housing is exponentially higher than the risk with respect to a gravel pit.
For the last week or so I’ve been closely looking at high voltage power lines around Utah County and I haven’t been able to find a single example of where another city allowed developers to build homes directly under them.
Even in Orem’s densely populated neighborhoods the high voltage lines always seem to be located along right-of-ways or in protected easements so they will create less of a safety hazard for residents in case of natural disasters or maintenance problems. Also, my understanding is that the easements are generally enforced, although exceptions can be made, in order to make it easier for maintenance crews to work on the lines as needed.
So why did Provo City allow this development to go forward? Why did the building and planning departments approve it? And why did the city’s political officers (mayor and council) approve it in their council meetings?
Also, if these high voltage power lines are owned by Provo Power, did the mayor or other city officials pressure the power company to allow building in its easement? These are all questions that need to be answered.
In my opinion, Provo City is creating an unnecessary safety hazard for the young families and first-time homeowners who will inevitably occupy these units. The risks may not manifest themselves right away, but they still exist and that is probably why this land hadn’t been developed before. Previous Provo City administrations apparently cared more about the city’s residents.
In another case of irrational development, a different Provo City resident shared a story with me about Lakeview Parkway (aka: “The Road to Nowhere”). This road is approximately three miles long; it’s wide enough for four lanes of traffic (although only two have been paved); and it looks like the fill material for the road base is at least 10 to 12 feet deep. It was obviously a very expensive road to build.
Since there are no existing residences or businesses along its route, it appears as if it was built almost exclusively to benefit developers who own land in the swamp east of Utah Lake. Land like this typically isn’t developed at all because it takes many years and millions of dollars to stabilize the ground before roads and buildings can be put on it. And most builders don’t want to front the enormous cost of the project.
According to this local source, Provo City used taxpayer money to build this road instead of forcing the developer to use his own money, which would have been the prudent thing to do, since the developer will be the primary beneficiary of the “Road to Nowhere.” This upset the resident because this new road doesn’t benefit any of the city’s existing taxpayers yet their money is being spent on it. It literally just loops around the empty fields at the south end of town and eventually connects back up to Center Street in Provo.
The only items of note along this new corridor (besides the cows) are the signs developers have put up announcing their new projects in the area.
I talked to a friend of mine who has family living on the edge of this marshy land and she told me the water level of the lake has almost flooded her uncle’s house twice since he moved there about 30 years ago. This is probably why no one has previously attempted to build in this area. Previous city administrations knew it wasn’t wise to build homes in a flood zone, even if the floods were infrequent.
I would like to know: Did Provo City really use taxpayer money to enable a super-expensive development project for one of the country’s biggest (and probably richest) developers? Why did the mayor and council approve it? Why do they appear to be issuing building permits for homes that might be in a flood zone? And are these homes being protected against future floods with additional building requirements or is the city bending the rules to facilitate the development?
None of these stories really surprised me because a Provo City employee warned me about a year ago that there were all kinds of problems with the city’s development activities. He told me how some developers were not being required to meet their full bond obligations before they started work. (Bonds are typically posted as collateral to ensure that everything is built to code.) He also explained that professional developers were often allowed to bend or break the rules while residents were being required to follow every little requirement of the code.
Obviously, this selective enforcement of the law has created a win-win situation for Mayor Curtis, politically speaking. By enforcing all the building codes on the city’s residents, he creates the impression among voters that his administration is a tough enforcer of the law, which is good for him.
At the same time he can curry favor with politically powerful developers by: not enforcing all the codes on them, allowing them to build homes in unsafe or problematic areas, and even using taxpayer money to make their expensive projects feasible. Basically, he has made it so developers can buy marginal or otherwise useless land at heavily discounted rates and resell it later for millions.
It’s brilliant, in a political sort of way. It’s exactly the kind of “skill” that politicians in Washington, D.C. absolutely love and respect!
Personally, I don’t have any beef with honest developers. As a first-time homeowner I was floored by the huge cost of buying a home in Utah County. Demand is obviously far greater than supply because homes now typically sell in days instead of weeks or months. This makes it much harder for young families to get into houses and it also makes it much more difficult for them to live near where they work.
I fully support builders and developers increasing the supply of homes in our housing market; I just want our public officials and government employees to make sure they do it with their own money and that they make sure developers build homes that are safe to live in.
After almost eight years in office you’d think that some of these more obvious problems with the Curtis administration would have come to light, but they haven’t, at least not to the general public. Whistleblowers, citizen watchdogs, and others are generally afraid of going public because they fear losing their jobs or becoming victims of government harassment.
In addition to cultivating friendships with corrupt politicians, appointing corrupt officials to run the city’s agencies, and running interference for them when they get in trouble, Mayor Curtis also appears to have a vindictive streak against those who threaten his carefully constructed public image as a happy do-gooder.
Provo City’s engineer/watchdog now appears to be the subject of a police harassment campaign. Recently, he’s found local officers at his home giving him tickets while not giving tickets to nearby vehicles that were parked exactly the same way. At other times he’s even caught them speeding away as soon as they notice his presence. (Some of the police are obviously uncomfortable about being tasked with the job of harassing him.)
Because this engineer is thorough in his documentation, he has taken pictures of numerous examples of the Provo City Police Department not enforcing its own parking regulations in front of its own buildings even though they will readily drive miles to his dead-end cul-de-sac to give him a ticket. The double-standard is obvious.
In another case this engineer claims that a Provo City police officer stopped his daughter on the street one day and told her, “We know who your father is and he better watch his back.” Scary!
But in the worst case, this man appears to have had past due balances added to an already closed utility account and also had his current utility service shut-off–without notice–even though his disabled granddaughter depended on her electrically powered breathing equipment to keep her airways open. When he called up Provo City to get his utility services reconnected, they made it extremely difficult for him.
When he complained to Mayor Curtis about this episode the mayor replied via email,
“All calls into customer service are recorded and I took the time to listen to your calls. After listening to the calls I tend to think that a great deal of patience was exhibited by our staff.”
I’m sure the Engineer, who is also a grandfather, was a bit frantic on the phone because his granddaughter was blue in the face at the time of the call, but I also think it’s highly likely that he’s being singled out for retribution even though his only “crime” appears to have been protecting the city’s residents, especially its most vulnerable ones.
Provo City eventually acknowledged the Engineer did not have any past due balances on his closed utility account and he got his power turned back on.
I know, these stories are absolutely unbelievable. That’s why this engineer/watchdog gave me a whopping 58 pages of emails, photos, and supporting documentation at our first meeting as well as answered every follow-up question I had about the timeline of events and why Curtis doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. He also offered to address a GOP panel if it would help substantiate his claims.
While I have learned from personal experience that it’s almost impossible to get a confession from crooked politicians or find smoking guns that directly tie them to criminal activity, sometimes the emails, reports, photos, and official records pile up enough circumstantial evidence to indicate there’s a serious problem. You know what they say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
About a month ago I was talking with a former Utah County Republican Party Chairman about Eagle Mountain’s problems and when we got to the subject of Provo he said, “John Curtis is evil.” If the insiders have that opinion of him, it makes you wonder what they know that the rest of us don’t.
When it comes to politics one thing is certain: crooked politicians like to use their families to burnish their images. Curtis is no exception judging from his generous use of family photos during the campaign. The implied message of these images is: “These are the people that know me best, and see how much they like me.” But even though his campaign literature may create the impression of a kind and caring man, some of us have seen the other side.
As one of Curtis’ many cousins I occasionally see him at family events. In 2012 we were at a large extended family reunion in Idaho and on the last morning of the reunion one of our relatives was a little late getting his assigned breakfast ready. He had six young kids to wrestle as well as the huge task of preparing a meal for more than 100 people. But instead of making a simple breakfast, as is usually the case at these events, he wanted to make something special so it took a little longer than usual.
While the rest of the family pitched in to help or patiently waited, Curtis started complaining in a loud, obnoxious voice about how mad he was that breakfast wasn’t ready, that he was being overcharged for it (which he wasn’t), and that he deserved better service. Of course, he did nothing to help our cousin out; he just complained in the most disrespectful manner possible. This is when some of our extended family members, who were also close by, lost all respect for him.
Sometimes when people are around family and don’t need to impress anyone, they aren’t as careful about how they act.
Socially Driven Personality
What could possibly explain the huge disconnect between Curtis’s sterling public image and the dark side that isn’t as well known?
One thing is obvious: If you’re one of his peers or he wants to earn your respect (ex. you’re a voter, you’re a member of the press, you have money for campaign donations, or you are politically connected) he will turn on the charm and make you think he’s one of the greatest guys around. But if you are beneath him in a professional or social capacity, you lack the type of social refinement he admires, or you expose his professional deficits, you may see another side of him.
Curtis is like the cool, rich kid in high school who hangs with the other cool, rich kids but also bullies those beneath him. The only difference between him and most of the rich kids I knew is that most of them grew up to become adults; Curtis just got older, and apparently, meaner.
After all, what type of person would use city resources to: fight government transparency, harass citizens who report on corruption, endanger the lives of their loved ones, disobey water quality regulations, approve home building in unsafe areas, all while giving rich developers pretty much everything they could possibly ask for? Someone who wants to go to Congress, of course!
Even now, Curtis is acting beneath his age by making his campaign about his coolness. Check out his latest marketing gimmick on his campaign website that basically tells voters they can be cool like him if they just give him a little money.
Link to archived page (in case the original disappears)
Unfortunately, Curtis is not the kind of guy who likes to take responsibility for his own actions. Over the years I’ve heard plenty of stories from his former employees at Action Target about how he, as its Chief Operating Officer, created a sales-dominated corporate culture that was highly dysfunctional and toxic. It was also extremely penny-wise and pound-foolish, sometimes in the stupidest of ways. (It was famous for its excessive use of overnight air to ship heavy industrial products around the world; sometimes just to impress customers who often didn’t care, other times because it kept forgetting parts in its original shipments.)
Most of the stories I heard about Curtis’ tenure went something like this: an employee who was extremely skilled but lacked the respect of Curtis and the other salesmen that ran the company tried to warn them that their plans were not well thought out and would result in failure. The feedback was taken as criticism and the employee was told to shut up and follow orders. When the project went sideways and the customer got upset, the employee was blamed for the failure. In one memorable case, an employee naively tried to defend himself by detailing the management decisions that led to failure and Curtis told him,
“It’s not my job to tell you how to do yours.”
I’m pretty sure Curtis will try to shift the blame for all the Provo City scandals that happened under his watch by also using the, “It’s not my job . . . ” line again, or maybe he will try something like,
“I can’t be expected to know everything my employees do.”
If I were a Provo City employee who was coerced into doing something wrong while working for Curtis, I’d prepare to be thrown under the bus. He’s not the kind of guy who takes responsibility for his own actions: he’ll either blame someone else or claim ignorance.
When I confronted him about his endorsement of Eagle Mountain’s corrupt mayor, he replied,
“During the several years that I worked with Mayor Jackson I never saw the side that you point out in the links below.”
I’m pretty sure he would say the same thing about the people who run his police department, his utility department, his planning department, his building department, and all the other government agencies he controls through his power of appointment, like the Provo City Housing Authority. And don’t forget his endorsement of Jeff Buhman, the corrupt Utah County Attorney who couldn’t prosecute a case of political corruption even if all the hard work had already been done for him.
The problem is that Curtis has been in office for 7 1/2 years and can’t credibly claim ignorance. The more likely explanation is that he endorsed these people, appointed these people, directed these people, and ran interference for them–even when they got in trouble–because he knows who they are and he likes them.
John Curtis’ moral compass always points to John Curtis.
While there are many other stories that I’d like to share in detail (like his complete inability to deal with the city’s massive problem with “rodents of unusual size,” or his propensity to side with stupid voters against local police who were only doing their jobs), I’ve already documented enough examples of Curtis’ failures to demonstrate that much of his sterling public image is nothing but marketing.
The simple fact is that Curtis will deny all knowledge of the corruption that has surrounded him for years even as he tells people that he’s actually against it. On his campaign website he even states that corruption is the biggest problem in Washington.
Obviously, Curtis knows how the process works because he’s perfected it in Provo. Now he wants to play in the Big Leagues.
Please, if you want to drain the swamp, don’t send a crocodile like Curtis to do it!