Why are Utah taxpayers funding a security project at Gov. Cox’s home?

Gov. Spencer Cox is speaking out after a news report shed light on a taxpayer-funded security project at his home in the central Utah town of Fairview.

The project is a small, 320-square-foot security house and a carport for the governor’s security detail with a price tag of about $260,000, according to publicly available plans posted on Utah’s public procurement website. The building plans include a kitchenette, a bathroom, shower, security office and a small upstairs loft.

The construction documents also detail plans for two 6-foot wrought-iron lift gates and a wrought-iron security fence at the property’s entrance, as well as a new chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter of the property.

The project, first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, was funded with taxpayer money through a bill, SB222, approved during the Utah Legislature’s 2021 session to fund “security and protection for public officials and the state capitol,” according to the bill, but with no specific mention of the plans to fund construction on Cox’s home property.

The governor’s office and other involved agencies have declined to comment on specifics of the project, citing security concerns.

“The Department of Public Safety made these recommendations because of security concerns. We can’t say more than that,” the governor’s spokeswoman Jennifer Napier-Pearce said in a statement to the Deseret News on Thursday.

But the governor spoke out Thursday on his personal Twitter page, both defending the tight-lipped nature of the project while also detailing “serious concerns” that prompted it.

“For very good reasons the Dept. of Public Safety will never comment on these issues or share security details for state buildings or officials and they would prefer I didn’t either,” Cox posted. “But I know how these things work, so let me share some context.”

Utah first lady Abby Cox and her husband, Gov Spencer Cox, walk on their family’s farmland near their home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Threats, downsized plans and an offer to pay out of pocket

The governor said after he was elected, the public safety department approached him and his wife, Abby Cox, with “serious concerns about real threats and vulnerabilities.”

“Abby and I were sick to learn how dangerous things had become,” Cox tweeted. “They proposed significant security measures including a fence and security building.”

Cox added they “hated the idea of feeling trapped,” having removed fencing on the property before, “but told them we would support whatever they felt was necessary to do their jobs. We offered to let security stay in the spare bedroom, but that would be a violation of protocol.”

The governor also said they explored the idea of using rental property nearby, “but that would ultimately end up costing more money.”

The governor also noted the public safety department had initially proposed plans for a “very nice outbuilding. But we felt it was too much.”

Previous plans also available on the state’s public procurement website reflect a much larger security building, which would have been nearly 1,300 square feet, including a living room, bedroom, kitchen, utility room, security office, locker room and garage.

Instead, Cox said “we settled on a very small building where the security team could stay warm and monitor the property.”

“Abby and I also insisted that we would pay for any upgrades or to have them removed — out of our own pocket — when our service is finished. We were told that wasn’t necessary but did it anyway,” Cox tweeted.

While state officials’ silence on details of the project led to questions about the budget approval process, Cox said legislative leadership “is briefed and security upgrades to buildings and officials are always included in a single line-item” in the budget. That’s “so the bad guys don’t know where the vulnerabilities are,” Cox said.

“Now everyone knows the security upgrades aren’t complete,” the governor added. “Which is fine I guess.”

Construction documents indicate the project isn’t scheduled to be completed until February.

The governor in his Twitter thread addressed criticisms about the project and whether it’s necessary.

“To those who believe these types of threats are exaggerated or overstated, I assure you they are not. We have had several security violations over the past year, including this one at the mansion that also prompted security upgrades.”

Cox posted a photo of what appeared to be damage to a window of the governor’s mansion in Salt Lake City.

Why Cox insists on staying connected to Fairview

Cox also addressed criticism of his decision to split his time between the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City and his hometown of Fairview in Sanpete County, about 100 miles south. When the governor took office about a year ago, he and Abby Cox moved into the mansion, but said they expected to return to their farm on weekends.

“I’m sure there are some who will criticize me for spending time in Fairview when we have a secure home provided by taxpayers in SLC. And it’s a fair criticism,” Cox tweeted. “I can only tell you that Fairview is the only place I can be me and feel connected to the soil and soul of our state.”

Cox, when he first agreed to be former Gov. Gary Herbert’s lieutenant governor, did so on the condition he could commute the 200-mile round trip from Fairview to Salt Lake City. Cox said he made that commute — driving 60,000 miles a year — “to preserve that connection.”

“I promised the people in rural Utah I would continue to spend as much time there as possible. I intend to keep that promise,” Cox tweeted.

The governor also defended his security detail.

“My security team is made up of the best humans on this planet. I love every one of them as if they were family,” he tweeted. “It hurts me to know they are putting their lives on the line every day to protect me and my family. Stuff like this puts their lives at risk more than mine.”

Cox also expressed misgivings with the need to have a security detail in the first place.

“I know some love the idea of having a security team to drive and follow every move. But it’s not me,” he tweeted. “Those that know me know that I hate everything about it and pray that someday we will live in a world where none of it is necessary. Thanks for your kindness and support.”

Lawmakers defend security spending

Senate leaders and other lawmakers defended the security project on Cox’s property, answering reporters’ questions about transparency with similar arguments for the need to balance security for the governor and other elected officials.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, the House sponsor of SB222 in 2021, said specifics around the project weren’t discussed publicly when the Legislature was considering the appropriation or the budget as a whole because “there is a level of sensitivity” that public safety officials need to do their jobs.

“We referred to it in general, but there were concerns about talking specifically about how this security money would be used,” Spendlove said.

The lack of public detail was “understandable,” he said. “On things that involve security, especially individual security, I think there does need to be a higher level of sensitivity.”

Spendlove said he defers to the state’s security experts and trusts them to spend the money wisely.

“I think it’s appropriate for there to be a high level of sensitivity, but it is good for the public to kind of know generally how this money is being used,” he said.

Overall, Spendlove said it’s unfortunate that the governor and his family have endured threats to their safety.

“It is really sad that we have to be doing this,” he said. “And it’s not just the governor. It’s legislators, it’s legislative staff that are subject to a greater level of threat. And I wish we didn’t have to do it, but it is necessary.”

On concerns about transparency, Spendlove said there’s a balance that needs to be struck.

“I think it is very important for there to be public oversight, public scrutiny of everything in the budget, and we strive to have that at the highest level possible,” Spendlove said. “But there is a higher sensitivity for those areas that involve security. And, you know, we do kind of defer to those experts in those areas.”

Asked whether he was transparent enough during the budgeting process that made no mention of the Fairview security project, SB222’s sponsor Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, told reporters on Thursday, “I believe I was.”

“They need a place for the security detail to be when they’re in a stand-down position to be able to fix something to eat, to be able to rest,” Ipson said. “It’s very well spent.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also defended the appropriation and its process, as well as Cox’s decision to spend time at his home in Fairview.

“He needs to go home and he needs security,” Adams said, also referring to Cox’s tweets that he’ll “pay it back when he’s not governor.”

“I thought it was transparent,” Adams added. “If people weren’t aware of that, I apologize for that. I don’t see any effort to try to cover it up, it was just part of the process and part of the appropriation.”

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, also chimed in, saying he wasn’t aware of the specifics about the governor’s home security project, but he was OK with that.

“I elected a leadership team to make some decisions on behalf of the budget, and one of those things is trying to make sure the state, the Capitol and the elected officials that represent the state are secure as well,” he said.

“If you give all the bad guys information, you know, it sure does expose your weaknesses, right?” McCay said.

He added today’s political climate has some sad realities, noting he’s had the Utah Highway Patrol “sleep outside my house at times,” and he’s grateful for their protection.

“For some reason, we’re at a point in society where it feels like being toxic or unhealthy or threatening towards political officials seems to be commonplace activity,” McCay said. “Being governor of the state of Utah should not mean that you should wonder as you’re sleeping whether or not your family’s safe.”

McCay added he’s “confident” and “the public should be rest assured that future governors will be treated the same.”

Asked whether threats against elected officials are getting worse, members of Senate leadership said they were, and are increasing in frequency.

“I dare say that every one of us has been threatened one way or another,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said.

McCay said perhaps the public, instead of “questioning the governor or questioning leadership” about the project, “maybe we turn the questions on ourselves and ask ourselves maybe there’s something we’re doing that’s changing the tenor of interaction with the public and public officials.

“Maybe there’s things we all could be doing differently to change the way we interact with our public officials.”

Contributing: Ashley Imlay