Is SUWA too cozy with county commissions?

Since their election to the San Juan County Commission in 2018, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy have relied on an outside lawyer for guidance on how to serve as elected leaders in a divided county resistant to change.

Colorado attorney Steve Boos helped the two Navajo Nation members and Democrats navigate a government structure that long favored the southeast Utah county’s conservative Mormon culture, oftentimes at the political expense of the Native Americans who make up about half the rural county’s population of 15,000.

Now as Maryboy and Grayeyes face reelection, allegations are surfacing that the commissioners’ unusual relationship with the lawyer, which has been the source of intense controversy from the beginning, amounts to bribery and illegal lobbying.

The accusations come from San Juan’s former county attorney, Kendall Laws, who has hounded the commissioners and other county officials with records requests since May, shortly after he resigned in frustration over Boos’s protracted involvement in county affairs.

The battle spilled into social media and the courts in recent weeks, where Laws has made his concerns public and is pressuring Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to open an investigation. With incomplete evidence, Laws’s Facebook posts allege the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and an affiliate group Rural Utah Project bankrolled Boos’s legal services, worth $250,000, in a secret effort to buy off the commissioners.

In an interview last week, however, Boos said no one has ever covered those services, which he has provided on a strictly pro bono basis, and rejected Laws’s suggestion that his work can be construed as “lobbying.” He and his former Colorado law firm have for years eaten those costs in their entirety, he said.

The basis for Laws’s contentions comes from 1,000 emails from Grayeyes’s personal account that he obtained through one of four records requests he submitted to the county in May. The few emails Laws has made public describe a proposed plan to have SUWA and Rural Utah Project quietly pay Boos’s fees in 2019. However, nothing came of the proposal, according to Boos, who maintains he has never been paid by anyone to advise Grayeyes and Maryboy.

Laws went public with his pressure campaign on Sept. 19, seven weeks before the Nov. 8 election, claiming “solid and accurate evidence” indicating the commissioners are unduly influenced by environmental and political activist groups, namely SUWA and Rural Utah Project. With its long history of advocating for national monument designations and other land conservation measures, SUWA is resented by some conservative Utahns who see it as a threat to motorized recreation, ranching and resource extraction, including oil, gas, coal, uranium and timber.

On Thursday, the Legislative Auditor General opened a “government compliance review” of Grand and San Juan counties in response to concerns that outside activists have an outsized influence on their commissions. And the next day, Laws sued the county, alleging that it has not fully complied with his document requests in violation of Utah’s public records laws.

Document requests and a libel suit

First elected as county attorney in 2014 and reelected in 2018, Laws resigned earlier this year and now works as an attorney with the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which advises the governor on public lands issues.

In various Facebooks posts, Laws alleges approximately $250,000 in attorney’s services were covered by SUWA in an apparent attempt to influence the commissioners. On Thursday, however, Laws acknowledged no evidence has surfaced showing SUWA paid for Boos’s services, but he says the emails raise enough questions to warrant serious inquiry.

“That’s the whole point of investigating something like that,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t have the ability to do that. I don’t have the authority. That’s not me. I’m a citizen. Should it be looked into? Hell yes, it should be looked into. Is something there? I don’t know. That’s for somebody else to decide.”

Boos flatly rejects any suggestion there is anything improper with his legal work with the commissioners, which he says he has never been compensated for and is necessary given the hostility Grayeyes and Maryboy have faced.

“My former law firm, my colleagues and I have provided extensive pro bono services to Mr. Grayeyes related to San Juan County. No one, including SUWA, has reimbursed us or paid for any part of these services, with the exception of the fees paid by San Juan County,” wrote Boos, who is based in Bayfield, Colorado, in an email.

A court did order the county to pay $180,000 worth of legal work Boos conducted on Grayeyes’s behalf after concluding county officials improperly removed Grayeyes from the 2018 ballot.

Laws argues Boos’s interactions with the commissioners violate state law and enable county business to be conducted without transparency. According to new court filings, he submitted his records requests to gather evidence to demonstrate potential “public corruption and misuse of office as well as bribery and illegal lobbying.” The requested information was also needed to support a libel suit Laws is preparing “against individuals,” presumably Boos.

These expansive document requests seek all correspondence between Boos and any county official; all emails between county commissioners and certain named individuals, including T.J. Ellerbeck and Drew Cooper of the Rural Utah Project and Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission; and all commissioners’ emails that mention Laws’s name dating back to the beginning of 2019, when Grayeyes and Maryboy were sworn in.

These requests are attached as exhibits to Laws’ new lawsuit, which alleges the county is illegally withholding pertinent emails sent and received by Maryboy.

New commissioners at odds with county officials

The counsel Boos has provided Maryboy and Grayeyes in the four years since they took their seats on the County Commission has been an ongoing source of controversy among many country residents. Given the adversarial relationship the two Democrats had with county officials, including Laws, they came to Boos for advice on how to be effective commissioners, according to Boos.

Grayeyes and Maryboy’s victories in 2018 marked the first time a Navajo majority held San Juan’s three-member commission and were made possible by a court-ordered redistricting that was more equitable to Native Americans. Diné (Navajo) and other tribal members make up about half the county’s population, yet Native Americans had remained on the periphery of the county’s political leadership for decades.

Neither Maryboy or Grayeyes could be reached for comment. Reached Thursday, the commission’s third member, Republican Bruce Adams of Monticello, declined to comment.

Boos, who has represented the Navajo Nation in varying capacities since the 1990s, was the lead lawyer on the redistricting case. His former firm, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel, based in Durango, Colorado, was awarded up to $3 million in legal fees the court ordered the county to pay after ruling that the county’s voting districts unlawfully disenfranchised tribal members.

Boos has known Maryboy and Grayeyes for years, dating back to when they were Navajo Nation Council delegates and Boos served as the nation’s chief legislative counsel. The attorney also took San Juan County to court on behalf of its Navajo residents to force the county to allow tribal members on juries and build a high school in a remote part of the Navajo Reservation.

In his latest role, Boos has advised Grayeyes and Maryboy on various aspects of serving as elected officials, such as responding to document requests, seeking information from county officials and contracting services. Boos guided them, for instance, when the commissioners drafted numerous resolutions, including one calling for the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument — a reversal of the previous County Commission’s vehement anti-monument stand.

The commissioners’ critics, such as blogger Monte Wells and former county administrator Kelly Pehrson, argued these resolutions defied the will of the county’s citizens and suspected Boos was using his advisory role to secretly promote an environmental agenda. Perhson filed a complaint with the Utah bar’s Office of Professional Conduct, which in 2019 concluded there was nothing wrong with Boos’s work with the commissioners.

‘Government should work in the daylight’

Laws, however, insists Boos’s arrangement with the commission cuts out him and other key officials from important deliberations.

“For me, it’s a transparency thing,” Laws said. “If it was [former San Juan] Commissioner [Phil] Lyman or if it was the governor of the state of Utah, I’d be saying the same thing. I think government should work in the daylight.”

In his Facebook posts, Laws suggests SUWA is using Boos’s ongoing arrangement with the two Democratic commissioners to influence them.

“There is solid and accurate evidence that the San Juan County Commission is being run by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Rural Utah Project [RUP] and that they have paid 250k towards controlling the majority vote of the commission and have committed numerous crimes,” Laws wrote in a Sept. 26 post.

The post is written in the form of a script that Laws suggests his Facebook followers use in contacting the Attorney General’s Office.

“As a voting constituent I demand a call back to know what the hell you are going to do about this evidence and the 3 banker boxes of evidence and flash drives you have previously been given,” the script reads. “It would be nice if Mr Reyes would deal with issues in Utah rather than gallavanting [sic] around the country trying to get a federal appointment.”

Elsewhere on his Facebook feed, Laws prods Reyes to take action against what he says is corruption on the San Juan County Commission.

“Do you think that the Utah Attorney General would do anything to Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance if he had evidence that they worked on brokering a deal to pay $250,000 to control a county commission? Yeah, me either,” he wrote in another post. “Maybe someone with a spine should run against him.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Laws’ father loses an election

Before their election, Maryboy and Grayeyes were leading advocates for Bears Ears National Monument, which President Barack Obama designated in late 2016. The monument was opposed by many San Juan residents, including Grayeyes’ 2018 election opponent, Laws’ father Kelly Laws of Blanding. The elder Laws went to court asking a judge to invalidate Grayeyes’ victory and lost.

Boos handled that case for Grayeyes without compensation.

SUWA and Rural Utah Project’s executive directors, Scott Groene and T.J. Ellerbeck, respectively, told The Tribune that their groups have not covered any of Boos’s legal services nor have they agreed to.

“It is something we considered at the time and decided it was not appropriate for Rural Utah Project to pay those legal bills,” Ellerbeck said. His group is publicly endorsing Grayeyes and Maryboy’s reelection bids over Republican challengers Sylvia Stubbs and Jamie Harvey, respectively. Ellerbeck emphasized that Rural Utah Project endorsements are based on who they believe will do the best job representing their communities.

Rural Utah Project was organized in 2017 under section 501(c)4 of the Tax Code, reserved for nonprofits promoting “social welfare.” Its goal is to support political participation by underrepresented communities in southern Utah, and as a social welfare organization, it may participate in political campaigns as long as it is not its primary activity.

SUWA formed as a nonprofit in 1984 and has since evolved into a formidable political and legal force over the years in Utah’s land conservation battles. It spent nearly $4 million in 2020, according to its most recent financial disclosure available.

Laws denies the timing of his posts are intended to influence the election. He began posting soon after receiving the documents last month.

“I turned that over at various stages to the AG’s office. I have never asked them to prosecute somebody. I have asked them to look into it and investigate it,” Laws said. “I don’t like to meddle in elections… With a thousand emails, I could have been posting that s**** every single day for the last month if my goal was to interfere or to sway people on an election.”

The posted emails are exchanges between Grayeyes, sent on his personal account, and Boos’ paralegal Liz Thomas, whom Laws described as a “SUWA operative,” along with Ellerbeck and Groene. Thomas retired as SUWA’s field attorney 8 years ago but has since served on the organization’s board.

Laws posted emails from 2019 that describe proposals for SUWA’s financial participation in Boos’s services, but none of them establish that payments, agreements or attempts to influence the commissioners actually occurred.

One email proposes SUWA enter a contract with Boos’s firm without naming Grayeyes as the client. In another, Groene asks Boos to forward billings totaling $27,265 for services provided to Grayeyes covering a 3-month period following the 2018 election.

Another indicates Boos spends five to 10 hours a week, worth $350 an hour, advising the commissioners. Covering these services for two years would cost $250,000, it says.

“Getting reimbursed for this past work might make them [the Maynes firm] more charitable to allowing Steve [Boos] to continue proving timely and effective assistance to the Commissioners for the next year or two in order to address many of the engrained, institutional problems in SJCO government,” Thomas wrote.

According to Boos, however, funding from SUWA, Rural Utah Project or other potential funding sources was not forthcoming, prompting him to terminate the pro bono services at the request of his law firm, which had grown weary of absorbing those costs. Boos later went into solo practice in 2020 and resumed his pro bono work with Grayeyes and Maryboy.

Boos denied his uncompensated services were an attempt to influence the commissioners; Rather, they were provided to meet obligations required of all lawyers practicing in Utah to render uncompensated counsel to groups and individuals who can’t afford to pay lawyers.

“My colleagues and I have represented [Grayeyes] without charge when the County violated his civil rights and when a disgruntled election opponent (Kelly Laws, the father of former County Attorney Kendall Laws) challenged his residency,” Boos said. “I have helped him, again without charge, navigate the waters of County government legal issues. I believe that my colleagues and I have done our best through this uncompensated work to meet the obligation placed on us by the Utah Supreme Court.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2022/11/02/is-suwa-too-cozy-with-county/ Is SUWA too cozy with county commissions?

Justin Scacco

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