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Downton Valley: Drama Among the Staff at Idaho's Glitziest Resort Town

Chronicling the scandal in the Sun Valley City government

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The first allegation centered on falsified timecards for Nick, an accusation supported by no less than 15-year SVFD veteran and longtime Cpt. Mal Prior, who told Ball that he witnessed Tina add hours to her son's time report that he did not work--on one occasion, including up to 79 hours on his time sheet. Further, Prior reported that he had known about the padded time reports for two years--especially since he regularly saw the fire and EMS payroll files--but did not report the discrepancies because he feared losing his job. Then-Assistant Fire Chief Ray Franco backed up Prior's allegations in the report, though stated that he refused on numerous occasions to approve Nick' time reports because he knew them to be false.

According to the report, when approached by Prior, Franco and Frostenson about the issue of the falsified timecards, Hammer refused to take any action. In fact, according to Ball's report, Hammer's hours working as an EMT were also vaguely recorded--or not recorded at all.

As in Hammer's case, credit card purchases by the elder Carnes came under scrutiny, including hefty gas expenses and thousands spent on items such as a $400 snowmobile helmet (for use by Nick), $2,500 on snowmobile parts (for Nick's snowmobile) and other expenditures for items such as boots (which Franco maintained were purchased online for personal use by Carnes and Nick). Costco purchases, clothing and restaurant charges were also questioned.

By the time the results of Ball's investigation were released in December 2011, Willich had been replaced as mayor by Dewayne Briscoe in the November election. The accusations and findings in the report were enough to prompt two more investigations: one by the Idaho Attorney General's Office, and launched at the request of Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas; the other a forensic audit commissioned by the City of Sun Valley to be performed by Boise-based law firm Moffatt Thomas Barrett Rock & Fields. Moffatt Thomas contracted with accounting firm Hagen Streiff Newton & Oshiro to undertake a forensic audit of each department in the city

From January 2012 through October 2012, the AG parsed through Ball's report, interviewed key players in the drama and, once it was completed in August 2012, the HSNO audit as well.

Taken together, both the AG and HSNO reports paint a similar picture: the City of Sun Valley was being run with such a severe lack of procedure and oversight that it was hard to determine just exactly what was going on and who, if anyone, was guilty of wrongdoing aside from gross administrative incompetence.

With regards to the Fire Department, the AG's report stated that its investigation, like Ball's, found "a total lack of organization and supervisory review."

The timecard system was in such disarray that investigators in many cases found it impossible to find documentation to determine time that was worked. What was clear, according to the HSNO audit, was that timecards were missing, specifically for Hammer, Nick Carnes and his mother, Tina, who told investigators that oftentimes Nick would forget to fill out his time sheet, so she would complete it for him.

At some point during the AG's investigation, in February and possibly early March 2012, two separate break-ins may have occurred at the SVFD Elkhorn Station, in which emails and personnel files were deleted or otherwise removed, further complicating the review. No suspects were ever identified.

In the investigation of Hammer's activities as city administrator, neither report could determine whether her credit card use was improper because of lack of documentation. However, $23,494 in purchases made by the Fire Department were found by HSNO to be inappropriate.

Regarding the other allegations made against Hammer, her use of the city vehicle was found to be in violation of city policy but authorized by then-Mayor Willich. Her vacation-leave reporting was also found to be in violation of city policy, but, again, as a result of shoddy management.

Recommendations in the HSNO audit could be summed up simply: Sun Valley needed to clean up its act, and that's what Briscoe vowed to do.

Though Hammer's contract was terminated in January 2012, shortly after the beginning of the AG's investigation, her replacement wasn't hired until November 2012--the month after the HSNO audit was completed. However, starting in June 2012, the city has been barraged with lawsuits and countersuits.

Frostenson and Ek both settled tort claims that they had been intimidated and harassed in the wake of their complaints and stepped down from their positions in June 2012. That same month saw the dismissal of a defamation suit filed by Councilman Nils Ribi--who took issue with statements by Hammer's attorney/husband Jim Donoval calling into question Ribi's mental stability--and a $3 million claim against the city by Hammer over unlawful termination and demanding her old job back. In July 2012, Hammer sued Ek for defamation, stemming from comments she made to the Idaho Mountain Express in two articles published by the paper that month.

Though former employees were still bitterly fighting it out in court, the Mountain Express reported that Briscoe said the city adopted a "new tone" of compliance with regulations, and later articles went on to laud the improved mood at City Hall.

On Nov. 21, 2012, Prosecutor Thomas stated in a letter to Sun Valley city officials that because of the lack of hard evidence, he would not pursue criminal charges against any past or current employees in connection with the allegations of the previous year.

However, Thomas did chide the city in his concluding paragraph.

"Although no criminal charges will be forthcoming, the investigations revealed serious failures at multiple levels of management and supervision within the City of Sun Valley," he wrote. "These failures in oversight contributed to a culture of entitlement where certain employees took advantage of the City's mismanagement, and led to a breach of the public trust and damage to the City's professional reputation. I trust that the City of Sun Valley will institute the necessary actions to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future."



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