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Escape From Eagle Mountain

The intensely personal politics that made refugees out of a small town’s public servants.

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Wild West Politics
There are phone calls from concerned constituents that any elected official may feel uncomfortable taking and then there are the kinds of phone calls former Councilman Brigham Morgan recalls receiving during his tenure on the council between 2002 and 2004.

“It would usually be 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d pick up the phone and just hear breathing, then they’d call me nasty names and slam the phone down.”

Morgan also recalls being escorted out of city council meetings by a sheriff’s deputy as citizens waited outside for him in the parking lot to finish the debate. While Morgan says he was an advocate for a more controlled growth, critics considered Morgan and his supporters to be radically opposed to any development.

Tensions often boiled over between these pro- and anti-growth factions. Morgan recalls when then-Councilman Mark Madsen—who would later become Walden’s attorney—responded to complaints of encroaching development by telling a constituent: “I don’t represent you; I only represent those who voted for me.” (Despite delivering questions in person to Madsen’s home, through his senate aides and to his personal and Senate e-mail addresses, Madsen would not comment for this story.)

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Former Mayor Brian Olsen also remembers disturbing behavior from the anti-growth faction in town. “These people were at war,” he says. Olsen, who moved to Eagle Mountain in 2002, recalls sign-waving residents clamoring at city hall like a torch-and-pitchfork mob, council members car tires being slashed and Sheriff deputies advising city officials to wear bulletproof vests.

The most polarizing issue was open space—especially in the city-center developments owned by Walden. The major battles were fought over the approval of the Pioneer Addition, a Walden subdivision that added higher density developments within the city center between 2003 and 2006. While Morgan conceded he could never connect any of the threats he received to Walden or the other three master developers in town, he says the threats occurred during the time the council was battling over the developments.

“Things got really bad when it was becoming obvious that I was the driving factor in delaying the revised development code,” Morgan says.

Growth opponents questioned how Walden’s new developments would affect the cityscape. One also challenged Councilman Madsen for receiving campaign contributions from John Walden in his bid for state Senate (campaign finance documents show Madsen received $19,500 from Walden).

Councilman Morgan raised similar concerns over donations and high-density housing. He feared the new developments would make the city look like a “parking lot.” Despite Morgan and other residents’ protests, the seven phases of the Pioneer Addition were approved through 2006.

A Parade of Mayors
As the city grew, the mayoral hot seat just got hotter after Mayor Hooge stepped down in 1998. Rob Bateman was appointed to finish out the final 18 months of her term. The next mayor, Paul Bond, was elected in 2000 but only served two years. He told a reporter in 2003 who asked if he might return to politics: “No, I don’t need that. I’ve done my time.”

Bond was asked that question in 2003 because the mayor of the time, Kelvin Bailey (mayor No. 4), also was expected to resign. Steeped in tense negotiations with developers, Bailey took a drive out into the country after a pheasant-hunting trip, just to clear his head. His drive turned into a 500 mile, 14-hour-long trek to Barstow, Calif. Bailey alleged that his strange journey was the result of being kidnapped at gunpoint by a hitchhiker—a story he said he told only to placate his wife until he could travel back home and tell her the truth.

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For a mayor who had reorganized the city’s finances, turned a 2003 deficit of $481,000 into a $730,000 surplus and helped reduce the city’s bond debt by $12 million, Bailey was branded as the mayor who kidnapped himself.

Following Bailey, Councilman Vincent Liddiard filled in as mayor for a couple of months until Councilman David Lifferth was appointed to fill out the term (mayors 5 and 6).

Brian Olsen began serving in December 2005. “I didn’t like the idea of developers going their own direction, but at the same time, I didn’t want to squash them entirely,” Olsen says. The not-solucky No. 7, Olsen achieved notoriety in May 2006 for publicly admitting he had lied about having a master’s degree. But scandal didn’t end there: In office less than a year, Olsen’s one-time political friends, Lifferth and Madsen, asked him to resign, accusing him of embezzling city funds.

That was a good thing you did, a real good thing!
Olsen claims it was political enemies who lobbed embezzling charges against him in 2006 for allegedly reimbursing himself for mileage on trips he never took. Acquitted of all charges by a Utah County jury in September 2008, Olsen is now pursuing action against the city to recover the more than $120,000 he spent defending himself.

Former councilwoman and mayor pro tem in 2006, Linn Strouse (No. 8) can relate to Olsen’s experience. After two council elections where Strouse says she was supported by colleagues Mark Madsen and David Lifferth, Strouse lost their support over disagreements stemming from the hiring of the fire chief. Strouse fought the hire and began to take stock of the influence of her former supporters Walden, Madsen and Lifferth.

In the fall of 2006, Strouse also became critical of public works director Mike Wren, a one-time Walden business partner, for Wren’s alleged work on land deals with Walden while employed by the city. Walden said the land deals represented unfinished business and did not constitute a conflict with Wren’s work for the city.

Walden also does not deny he supported local candidates. “I’ve sent a check to every single person who’s run for office,” Walden says. “Because I appreciate people running for office. People in the past election actually sent checks back and wanted to be able to say that I didn’t support them—the humorous thing is, I think the majority of those people who sent the checks back never won the election,” Walden says with a chuckle.

One of them was Strouse. Despite accepting a $500 check in 2003 from Walden, she abstained from any developer money in her thwarted 2007 re-election bid for her council seat.

But then came the matter of a $10,000 check. During the summer of 2005, Linn Strouse’s husband was struggling with a terminal case of lung cancer. The couple decided to offset medical bills by remodeling their basement and renting out the main floors of their house to earn money, as Linn Strouse had recently lost her job.

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In July 2005, Strouse says she received a $10,000 cashier’s check from Mark Madsen. Madsen had by this time left the city council and gone on to work as Walden’s attorney. Strouse said Madsen told her the money had been scraped together by friends in the neighborhood—and was not from Walden.

Walden, however, claims he delivered the check in person to the Strouses as a short-term loan. “All I did was loan some money to a friend,” Walden says. “Then, it turns out she signed the check, deposited it and then forgot I was ever there.”

Strouse says the first time she heard about Walden being the source of what she considered a neighborhood donation was during a contentious meeting with Walden in the fall of 2006. “He was chewing me out,” Strouse says. “Telling me how I should treat [public-works director] Wren. Then, it got to the point that everything he was trying wasn’t working,” Strouse says. She says Walden leaned in and said, “You know that money [her husband] got? The D.A. might find out about that; they might even think it’s a bribe.”

Strouse says she threw Walden out and later told the council she had been threatened by a developer.

That statement pricked up the ears of Councilman David Lifferth. In an e-mail, he says that he decided to begin “investigating” which developer had threatened Strouse. “It was in my conversation with Walden that I learned about the check Walden had given to Strouse.”

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The focus of Lifferth’s investigation soon became not whether the mayor had received a threat, but whether a mayor received a bribe from a developer. He took his concerns to the Utah County Attorney’s Office.

County investigators ascertained certain facts about the case: The check was deposited by Strouse into her account on July 12, 2005. It had a note on the bottom that read, “loan for basement.” A nearly illegible Walden signature is on the check, but so is the name “Mark Madsen,” printed clearly on the top of the check—suggesting to Strouse that Madsen was the giver of the check.

Lifferth was confident enough of the mayor’s wrongdoing that, in March 2007, he posted on his blog a copy of a letter he received from County investigators about the progress of the ongoing Strouse investigation. His initial blog post even included Strouse’s name—a simple mistake, he says, as he later updated the blog and removed her name.

In June 2007, Walden met with Utah County investigator Patti Johnston about the check. In a recorded deposition, Walden is heard telling investigator Johnston that Strouse has consistently voted against his interests. “I don’t want to make a fuss about it,” Walden explains. “But I also don’t want her threatening me.”

County investigator Johnston told Walden that Strouse clearly violated state law by not disclosing the loan, assuring him that charges could be filed by the end of the week. This triggered an exuberant outburst from Walden: “Godspeed to you!”

However, before the November 2007 hearing, county attorneys learned Utah’s nondisclosure law doesn’t apply to city officials. Undaunted, prosecutors amended the charge to one alleging a bribe. In January 2009, prosecutors decided bribery was too difficult to prove and dropped the charges after Strouse agreed to repay $7,500 to Walden.

Strouse still disputes Walden ever gave her the check. With all the neighborhood volunteers helping the Strouses remodel their home on that Friday in July 2005—including Mayor Kelvin Bailey—Utah County investigators declined to interview these witnesses to determine if they remember Walden stopping by.

“A bunch of hogwash to my recollection,” Bailey says of Walden’s claim that he personally delivered the check to Strouse. Bailey declined to comment on this story, except to refute Walden’s account of his visit. “He was never at Linn’s house during this period of time to my knowledge and definitely not when I was working on the basement along with the other neighbors.”

Walden’s reaction to this account from Bailey: “Well, I don’t know … these are years ago … I don’t know what Bailey said, I don’t know what Linn said—I’m in Florida! Linn was proven wrong and she wrote me a check.”

Oh, Pioneers!
After Strouse, along came interim Mayor Don Richardson (No. 9), who served until Heather Jackson, a councilwoman—who had for years done all of Walden’s title work on his properties— was elected in 2008 as the 10th mayor of Eagle Mountain. So far, no mayor has served a fouryear term.

Ultimately, “Utah’s New Frontier” was tamed by the developers—not just Walden but other companies that brought in revenue from home sales fees to offset the town’s burdensome utilities costs. But recently, the city still faced a more than $250,000 deficit as well as leftover utilities bonds heavier, some say, because of Walden’s maneuvering.

“Eagle Mountain’s future looks bright,” Mayor Heather Jackson writes via e-mail. “We have elected officials who are working for the citizens and their best interests. We all work well together.”

Walden himself says he’s hardly visited Eagle Mountain in recent years and has mostly been enjoying retirement in Florida “just fishing.” Looking back on the town’s history, Walden is baffled by the mayoral turnover. “I have no idea; it’s been bizarre,” he says.

Bizarre as it has been, residents don’t feel like they live in The Twilight Zone. They may think happy thoughts, but it’s not to blot out the memory of local scandal. The town now boasts a dentist’s office, a Mexican restaurant that makes a mean smothered burrito, and a karate studio. A recent Pony Express Days festival brought the community together to revel in its neo-pioneer spirit: Pancake breakfasts, concerts, baby-photo contests—the whole nine yards.

A visitor driving there that day would see a town center nestled calmly in the Cedar Valley, bright skies overhead and roads lined with plastic American flags, set in motion by a light breeze.

Over the Oquirrh Mountains to the north, a thunderstorm lingers, but on this day, it’s hard to tell if the cloud is coming or going.

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