PRICE — Carbon County commissioners decided not to remove Sheriff James Cordova from office Wednesday, opting instead to have the county attorney's office continue its investigation into allegations that the sheriff is now living in St. George.
The decision came at the close of a hearing that lasted less than an hour and was attended by so many people that some were left standing in the hall outside the commission chamber.
"We're doing this in a public meeting because this has been such a big issue for the public," deputy Carbon County attorney Christian Bryner said, adding that county commissioners have received numerous complaints from people "wondering if the sheriff is still here."
Cordova, who was first elected sheriff in 1998, announced last year that he would not seek office again. In December, he purchased a home in St. George and multiple sources told the Deseret News he began spending much of his time there.
On Wednesday, Bryner told commissioners Cordova has been to the sheriff's office a total of 26 times in the first six months of 2014. In his absence, Cordova has turned over day-to-day operations of the office to subordinates, Bryner said.
"This is not just somebody who is preparing for his retirement," Bryner said. "It appears to us this is someone who is starting his retirement right now."
State law requires elected county officials to maintain residency in the county where they were elected for the duration of their term in office. If an elected county official establishes a place of residency outside the county, the office is automatically vacated.
Cordova's house in Carbon County is under contract, but the sale has not yet closed, according to Rick Golden, one of Cordova's attorneys.
"Sheriff Cordova has a residence in Carbon County," Golden said. "He is indeed setting up a home in St. George — freely admitted — but that does not make it his residence."
Golden, who labeled Bryner's presentation as "essentially groundless allegations," said Washington County doesn't consider the St. George home Cordova's primary residence for tax purposes.
"It's being taxed as a secondary home, a vacation home," Golden said.
The sheriff's woes don't end with questions about his residency. He is also under investigation by the Utah Attorney General's Office for alleged misuse of his county-issued credit card, according to Carbon County Attorney Gene Strate.
An investigator in Strate's office, working with officers from other police agencies, conducted surveillance on Cordova and documented his use of a county-issued pickup truck and a sheriff's office search and rescue trailer to move his personal belongings to his St. George home, the prosecutor said.
It is believed that Cordova paid for fuel for the trips with his county-issued credit card, running up a tab of about $2,100, Strate said.
County commissioners did not address the ongoing criminal investigation at Wednesday's meeting. Kelly Ann Booth, another attorney representing Cordova, also declined to discuss the criminal probe in detail, but said her client has done nothing wrong.
"We know, at the end of the day, Sheriff Cordova is going to be vindicated in that," Booth said. "We hope to put it to bed as soon as we can, but the people of Carbon County don't need to waste time and money on this."
Carbon County Commissioner Casey Hopes doesn't believe continuing the investigation into Cordova's residency is a waste of county resources. It's also not a "witch hunt," as some Cordova supporters have alleged, Hopes said.
"We're not attacking his character," the commissioner said. "This is simply: Does he live here or doesn't he? We're just looking out for our constituents and their money.
"We're not calling into question any of his service," Hopes added. "The sheriff has done great things for the community."
Bryner did not offer a time table for when the county attorney's office investigation will be complete, but said the hope is to have it finished before Cordova's term ends on Dec. 31.
Should Cordova, a Democrat, be removed from office, his replacement would be chosen by the Carbon County Democratic Party's central committee, according to party chairman Jason Llewelyn. The person who is chosen would serve the remainder of Cordova's term.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: GeoffLiesik