The Unsinkable Bill Finney | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Unsinkable Bill Finney 

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If you put several friendly laboratory rats onto an electrified floor and turn on the juice, an interesting thing occurs. The once harmonious pack will single out one of its members for punishment through vicious attacks.

The rat is not alone in this behavior. According to Jane Goodall, the most common cause of brutality among chimpanzees is “frustration that leads an individual who has been thwarted by one stronger to turn and vent his aggression on a smaller and weaker bystander.” Humans, having the same physiological circuitry, behave in the same way. When battered by forces beyond our control, we look around for someone smaller or further down the hierarchical ladder to punch—a scapegoat in the carefully constructed pecking order.

In 1991, Bill Finney joined the Salt Lake County government as director of two large departments, Sanitation and Fleet Management. It was an unprecedented dual role in which he excelled, providing such innovations as a sorting plant for household recyclable materials and a countywide composting program.

Finney’s most innovative contribution during his more than six years in county service was a program for Salt Lake County to sell its used vehicle fleet to the public on its own two-acre car lot, rather than back to dealers. The program generated a handsome return on automobiles, saving tens of thousands of dollars a year for county taxpayers. In addition, the plan disposed of the county’s old junkers, scaled back fleet vehicle mechanics and eliminated the cost of purchasing new tires.

Though the program was successful and never lost money, it came under intense scrutiny and criticism. Then in 1996, it completely exploded in the red faces of county officials. The source of the meltdown centered on a missing automobile, a Ford Taurus, which news media swarmed on, bringing embarrassment to County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi and Public Works Director Lonnie Johnson.

In response, Finney was booted from Fleet Management and Johnson immediately filled the position with his confidant, longtime law enforcement officer Nick Morgan. Having been recently terminated as inspector general by the Utah Department of Corrections, Morgan took over Fleet Management with no experience in motor pools.

In the midst of an extensive search for the missing Taurus, one of Finney’s subordinates, Gary Campell, was discovered to have downloaded extensive amounts of questionable material onto his county computer. He was discharged instantly. When Finney’s search finally located the missing Taurus, it was traced to a couple in Wyoming who had bought it directly from Campell.

In September 1997, Campell was sentenced to 120 days in jail for selling government cars to finance a house he was building. He repaid $34,500 for the Taurus, two Dodge trucks that he had also sold, and some construction work done on his home at county expense. Finney knew nothing about the thefts and was cleared following an extensive criminal investigation.

Still working as sanitation director, Finney thought operations had settled back to routine, with Campell gone from county service and paying for his crime. He was just in the middle of writing his report for Johnson concerning the automobile theft when he says Johnson appeared in his office and demanded his resignation. “He said, ‘I’m fucking firing you. If you don’t resign, I’ll ruin you … I’ll make your life so miserable you’ll wish you had taken the easy way out,’” says Finney. “He said I should have known what Campell was doing and then told me to go home on administrative leave.”

Former state Rep. Steve Barth was hired to replace Finney as county sanitation director, although he had no experience in sanitation. Barth is known as a longtime Johnson aide in county government; some even saw him as Johnson’s right hand man or, in some cases, his henchman.

When Finney went to pick up his paycheck several days later, he was met by a security guard who informed him that Johnson had instructed that he be escorted from the premises. Concerned about the escalation of anger toward him and the threat against his career, Finney drove to the county office of Public Works Personnel and asked for his file. He then asked two employees to look through the file and verify its contents. “I was concerned about Lonnie attempting to salt the mine,” he said. It turned out to be a smart move. Much later in the investigation, documents that were never part of Finney’s record were forwarded as evidence.

The next day, a letter from Johnson was hand-delivered to Finney at his residence. “This letter restricted me to my home between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. so that Lonnie could reach me,” says Finney. “[It] instructed me not to visit county property or talk to county employees.” His paychecks were withheld.

Unable to commiserate with his co-workers and finding himself under what amounted to house arrest, Finney appealed to the Salt Lake County Career Service Council with two grievances. The first grievance charged that he was illegally fired. According to government policy, employees with merit status cannot be summarily fired; the government must show progressive disciplinary action before terminating. In direct contrast to that policy, Finney’s file reflected superior performance reviews and evaluations. The second grievance is somewhat ironic. Finney appealed to the council because he alleges he was forced by Johnson to illegally hire Gary Campell—the same man who had brought embarrassment on Johnson and Horiuchi. “I got the call to give him the job,” says Finney. “There was a pretense of an interview process, but the fix was in.”

As Johnson’s superior, Horiuchi quickly distanced himself from any involvement in the Finney case. He has not returned phone calls from City Weekly. “Randy turned the whole thing over to me,” says Johnson. The former public works director, who is still employed by Salt Lake County as now-Councilman Randy Horiuchi’s administrative assistant, disputes any notion of a vendetta and says he has no reason to hold a grudge against Finney. “As a matter of fact, I trusted him and gave him more latitude than other employees,” he says. “Now I have to take responsibility for not being on top of him more than I was. But he was a friend of 20 years and no, it didn’t feel good to fire him.”

But getting fired was just the start of Finney’s troubles. During the Service Council appeal process, things got even stranger. At Johnson’s urging, a criminal investigation was launched by then-District Attorney Neal Gunnerson. Three misdemeanors and one felony charge were leveled against Finney—for allegedly soliciting funds for a department picnic and then keeping the money; for allegedly soliciting $6,500 in cash and other compensation from county vendors; for allegedly soliciting $3,953-worth of hotel rooms and airline tickets; and for allegedly taking illegally four tickets to the Indianapolis 500 race in May 1996.

Finney admits that he and his family took a long-planned vacation to Indiana and Kentucky, but he maintains he paid for the trip’s expenses himself. Tickets to the race, valued at $30 each, had been given to him by Cummins International, a large sponsor of the Indianapolis 500 and a company Finney purchased engines from for the County Sanitation Department. “Tickets to the race were available to any of their customers. Vendor status had absolutely nothing to do with it,” says Finney. “Nothing I ever did at the county was private. I literally removed the door from my office and took locks off file cabinets. It was an open door.”

As for soliciting vendors to supply prizes and payment for employee picnics, Finney insists no wrongdoing was involved. “I never took anything home, and paid personally for one employee picnic. Christmas parties, all the employee functions, are done the same way throughout the county,” he says. “The only thing not left in county possession was a bingo set. We decided to buy a bingo set to replace an older one. I told [one employee] to keep the set at home and use it as she saw fit … and when I retired she could keep the set as it would be pretty well used up by then.”

In the case of the accusation against him for keeping vendor money, Finney says it’s beyond him where that idea came from. He thinks it came from an incident where he gave an employee money for expenses to go to the Rocky Mountain Fleet Association semi-annual meeting. “[Lonnie] denied her request to pay for her to go, saying, ‘I wouldn’t send that c—t anywhere.’ When I told her he denied her request, she asked for some of her vacation time so she could go,” says Finney. “I took out my money clip and gave her $100 and said I would like to help her with her expenses.”

On Oct. 24, 1997, Finney was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail. “The worst thing I ever did is get a speeding ticket and here I was being cuffed, fingerprinted, searched and photographed,” says Finney. “After an hour in a cell, they let me out the back door on the street. The next morning my mug shot is in the papers.”

Unemployed and with checks being held by the county, Finney’s retirement and pension were in jeopardy. In order to pay his mounting attorney fees, he depleted his savings and sold his investments. Then, after selling his condominium, he began driving a long-haul trucking route to earn a living. “My life consisted of driving a truck and checking in with my attorney.”

With bad luck running worse, in the spring of 2001 he was forced to abandon his only source of income after breaking a leg during a delivery. The leg was spliced together with metal rods and pins, but after several operations, a dangerous infection set in. His leg had to be amputated.

Meanwhile, his criminal case was dragging on without a court date in sight. One judge after another passed the case on. Months became years of one continuance after another. Tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees later, there was still no definite court date for Finney to present evidence of his innocence. Finally, in 1999, after three years of investigation, he entered a plea in abeyance of “no contest” to one misdemeanor and all other charges were dropped. The plea in abeyance does not go on the permanent court record and was expunged six months later, in what Finney called “an absolute victory.”

With the nightmare of the three-year criminal investigation behind him, Finney was moving about easily with a new prosthetic leg. It was time, finally, to take his grievances back before the Career Service Council in an attempt to get his job and lost wages back.

The Salt Lake County Career Service Council consists of three citizens who listen to both sides of a dispute, hear from character witnesses, weigh the evidence and then make a final decision. But unlike a court of law, the Career Service Council uses a lower standard of evidence called “administrative justice,” which requires only a preponderance of evidence, rather than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Before the Career Service Council, Finney’s attorney, Greg Skordas, argued his client’s case for the first grievance, unlawful firing, against county evidence that had been amassed into a mountain of allegations. The second grievance was tabled until a decision on the first grievance could be made. Hearings for the first grievance concluded at the end of August.

Interestingly, during the seemingly never-ending stretch of time that Finney’s criminal case had been held up, Gunnerson’s term as district attorney ended and longtime Finney friend David Yocom was elected D.A. One of the first things Yocom did when he took office was recuse himself from Finney’s criminal case and later from the appeal before the Career Service Council. “I self-screened in both to have no contact, no involvement and no decision-making,” says Yocom. “The only thing I ever did do was during another of the umpteenth continuances, I arranged for another prosecutor to take it over.”

On Sept. 11, while the rest of the country was barely able to function due to the terrorist attacks, Johnson fired off a two-page letter to the Career Service Council, ripping into Finney’s main character witness, District Attorney David Yocom. In the letter obtained by City Weekly, Johnson detailed his anger for Yocom having testified on Finney’s behalf. “Mr. Yocom has been a personal friend of Bill’s for several decades,” reads the letter. It goes on to accuse Yocom of intimidation and pressure in the case, which Johnson apparently saw going in Finney’s favor.

Yocom dismisses the letter as fiction. “It’s inaccurate as to what happened. The only thing he got right is that I am a friend of Finney and that I was called to testify,” he says. “I responded to questions under oath and I did the best I could to be truthful.”

Still, Johnson remains adamant. “It’s my belief that Dave violated state bar ethics,” he says. “I still haven’t decided if I’m going to file a bar complaint against him.”

Johnson’s last-minute torpedo hit its mark. The Career Service Council delivered its decision on Sept. 21, ruling against Finney and upholding his termination by agreeing with the county on four of 10 accusations. First, the council ruled against Finney for his travel to the Indianapolis races after he came up empty-handed in a search for the receipts to prove that he made the payments for the airfare and hotel himself.

Second, the council ruled against Finney for driving a vehicle to California without approval, though he maintains there was verbal approval between him and Johnson. Skordas is quick to point out the reason behind that particular trip. “He was taking a garbage truck, whose back end made the truck useless, to a company that could make it serviceable again.”

The third accusation upheld by the council was that Finney sold scrapped metal parts separately rather than as a unit, resulting in less return to the county coffers. According to Skordas, however, the county never proved that the parts brought less money than they would have as a unit.

The fourth accusation upheld against Finney was that he violated county policy by not properly accounting for funds solicited and received. But Skordas dismisses that finding. “We brought in other agencies that did the same thing to show Bill wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary,” says Skordas. “His superiors knew what he was doing for years and it was business as usual.”

Skordas says the finding of the Career Service Council on Finney’s first grievance effectively negates the possibility of his having the second grievance, illegal hiring, heard. But the worst part, he says, is that other employees, afraid to step into the line of fire, left Finney to twist in the wind. “The disappointing thing about this case is how witnesses sold out. Bill had been so good to these people and he was part of the team when things were working” he says. “Now Bill’s gone and they weren’t there for him. All they wanted is to protect their own jobs.”

Yocom puts it even more succinctly. “It’s a tragic end to a man’s career for petty and personal reasons.”

The epilogue to the story remains uncertain. Finney, who is now broke and unemployed, could appeal the Career Service Council’s findings to state court in order to get his job back. But somewhat exhausted by the now four-year battle, he says he needs to think it over. “I’m just taking a deep breath and regrouping,” he says with a sigh.

He may attempt to recoup his legal expenses and court costs related to the criminal indictments. But if successful, it could take a long time.

But Finney has remained upbeat through the entire sojourn, and he remains positive and unsinkable. “Lonnie Johnson said he was going to ruin me. And he did ruin me financially. But he didn’t ruin my reputation,” he says, referring to the dismissal of the criminal counts. “I still have my health,” he says, ignoring the fact that had he not been forced back to truck driving, he might still have his leg. “I still have my family, my friends and my standing in the community.

“Lonnie Johnson tried to make me a jailhouse guy. He couldn’t do it.” u

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