A PAC with ties to the Utah Sheriffs’ Association is trying to impeach Utah County District Attorney David Leavitt

A Republican challenger in the Utah County attorney race has demanded an apology from incumbent David Leavitt for suggesting in a donation email that he had spread allegations that Leavitt was suspected of ritual sexual abuse and cannibalism.

“That’s just not true,” candidate Jeff Gray said Tuesday at a news conference at the Utah Capitol. “I’ve never made such an accusation. In all honesty, I demand that he take that back.”

But Leavitt said he has no plans to retract anything in the campaign email, in which he wrote, “My opponent has outdone himself with his latest claims, accusing me of cannibalizing young children and participating in a ritual sex ring… He is abusing his office to direct these outlandish political attacks against me and my family.”

In a phone call to The Salt Lake Tribune after Gray’s press conference, Leavitt said the comments were not about his challenger, but were about Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith.

“I would certainly argue that Mike Smith is my political opponent,” he said. “If Mike Smith and Jeff Gray have the same campaign manager and perform at campaign events together, I see Mike Smith and Jeff Gray as one.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt holds a news conference in Provo on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, during which he called on Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith to resign and claimed his office was being used for “political purposes.”

Leavitt has for weeks publicly denied allegations of involvement in a ritual sex ring or cannibalism, a bizarre twist on that local area code that has now made headlines nationally.

At a June 1 news conference, Leavitt condemned an investigation conducted by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, which announced the day before that it was investigating a case of “ritualistic child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking” occurring in Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties took place between 1999 and 2010.

The sheriff’s office did not name Leavitt – or anyone else – as a suspect.

But Leavitt saw that a victim’s statement had been released that named him. He believed the timing of the sheriff’s office announcement was suspicious since Smith, the sheriff, was supporting Gray in the running for district attorney and made the announcement about the investigation just a week before the ballots were mailed to voters.

Since Leavitt held that press conference to publicly deny cannibalism allegations and call for Smith’s resignation, he has seen a flood of more than $100,000 in campaign contributions.

Political opponents, new and old

Gray isn’t alone in his frustration with the Utah County attorney. A political action committee with ties to the Utah Sheriffs’ Association recently raised thousands of dollars in hopes of torpedoing Leavitt’s re-election campaign.

Utahns for Safer Communities has raised $30,000 in donations — all of which came in the days immediately following the sheriff’s announcement about the investigation into the alleged ritualistic sex abuse ring. The fundraising organization is also behind, a new website that Leavitt describes as “crime soft” and “ethically scrutinized.”

The PAC was formed a week before Smith’s office released the press release on its investigation into ritual sexual abuse. The organization’s officers include former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and Scott Burns, executive director of the Utah Sheriff’s Association. Hughes also works as a lobbyist for the Sheriff’s Association.

Donors to the PAC include Burns, Hughes, his lobbying partners at Hartley Consulting (who designed the website), State Assemblyman Mike Schultz, State Senator Mike McKell, Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Tucker, and Garfield County Sheriff , Danny Perkins.

Speaking at Gray’s news conference on Tuesday, Hughes said he was interested in racing in the county because he felt the issues at the heart of racing were national. If a district attorney is criminal, he said, it can encourage human and drug trafficking cartels to set up shop there.

“These county lines don’t have a wall around them,” he said. “There is no magical difference between one side of this county boundary and the other. If you have a county like Utah County, you’ll find a cartel presence – sophisticated organized crime will go there if they understand the consequences aren’t high. They can go about their crime and their business undisturbed.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks during a news conference at the Captiol on Tuesday, June 14, 2022 to discuss the need to appoint current Utah County Attorney David Leavitt to replace.

Leavitt called the claim “ridiculous scaremongering” and said he believes Hughes and those with ties to the Sheriff’s Association created Utahns for Safer Communities because they see him as a threat.

“They are the power structure,” he said. “You don’t have a check. And I control them. What this shows is that having someone to verify power is important. I’m a check on the sheriff. I also review activities in the legislature.”

“This is her chance to get me,” he added. “And maybe they will.”

Leavitt has had many political opponents — law enforcement officials, lawmakers and former prosecutors in office — who have criticized his decision-making during his four-year tenure as Utah County Attorney, particularly the move to disband the Special Victims Unit in 2020.

Gray, who works as an appellate attorney for the Utah attorney general’s office, said Leavitt’s reform efforts went too far and lost focus on victims and community safety.

“It wasn’t my plan to run for office,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m not a politician. I’m a prosecutor. I believe in the rule of law. But I felt like I had to get in the running when I learned about the policies our current district attorney is implementing.”

Leavitt did not apologize for these changes. He has reduced the number of crime cases his office has tracked and established a pre-filing diversion program that allows individuals arrested for minor, nonviolent crimes to stay out of the criminal justice system and be connected to resources instead. He said if he is re-elected he will focus on moving his office away from offering pleas and more cases to court.

Man down

The district attorney race will be decided in the June 28 primary because there is no Democratic challenger. Republican voters will see another name on the ballot, Adam Pomeroy, even though he retired from the race nearly two weeks ago.

Pomeroy, who was at Gray’s press conference Tuesday to provide confirmation, said it was clear he wouldn’t be able to make his mark in a three-person elementary school where Leavitt has the notoriety and wealth to support a campaign.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) lr Utah County Attorney Adam Pomeroy met with Utah District Attorney nominee Jeff Gray, Utah County leaders and legislators during a news conference at the Captiol Tuesday, May 14, 2009. June 2022 to discuss the need for a replacement current acting Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.

He is currently a prosecutor in Leavitt’s office and said he ran for district attorney after seeing firsthand how Leavitt’s policy choices have led to a backlog of cases and an exodus of experienced prosecutors.

Pomeroy said running for office jeopardized not only his career but also that of his wife, who is also a Utah County prosecutor. He expects Leavitt to be forced out of his job if re-elected, and said his wife recently quit saying she was leaving hers.

“It’s no mystery why so many have fled,” he said. “The currency of office is no longer loyalty to the Constitution or a duty to deliver justice, but, above all, personal loyalty to Mr. Leavitt.”

Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke contributed to this report. A PAC with ties to the Utah Sheriffs’ Association is trying to impeach Utah County District Attorney David Leavitt

Joel McCord

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