EVANSTON -- Staying out of it.
That’s the commitment former mayor of Rock Springs Tim Kaumo made in a 2020 email that was brought up numerous times during his sentencing hearing Tuesday in Uinta County Circuit Court in Evanston.
Kaumo pleaded guilty to official misconduct and conflict of interest in relation to using his position as mayor to secure an engineering contract for his own business.
Third Judicial District Judge Michael Greer sentenced Kaumo to a $5,220 fine for the misdemeanor charges, which he merged into one penalty for both counts.
“You said you weren’t going to let yourself get drawn into this,” Greer said. “I disagree. He interjected himself. In fact, he jumped in with both feet.”
‘My Reputation Will Be Tarnished’
Kaumo apologized and expressed remorse for his actions during a sentencing hearing Tuesday that took up the better part of the day.
He also said the fallout from pushing his own company for a city job has been severe.
“I was constantly harassed through my last term by individuals who wanted to see me fail,” Kaumo told the court. “My reputation will be tarnished with these offenses.”
Kaumo also explained why he took the actions he did, saying his emotions and passion got the best of him while trying to defend himself and the city against accusations of conflict of interest.
He said his company, JFC Engineers & Surveyors, lost the bid solely because he was the mayor.
“A lot of my initial involvement was to dispel accusations that caused me to respond in defense,” he said. “In hindsight, I could have been more professional.”
Hasn’t ‘Accepted Responsibility’
The prosecution, led by specially-appointed attorney Tucker Ruby of Johnson County, attempted to key into this defense, arguing it showed Kaumo lacked remorse for his actions.
“Your honor, I’d say he’s pled guilty, but I’m not certain he’s accepted responsibility,” Ruby said.
Greer and Ruby said they found the case to hold important significance for public officials throughout Wyoming.
“There’s so many people who are distrustful of local government,” Greer said. “When someone sees a case like this happens, it gives them a reason to say, ‘See, I told you.’”
Kaumo was Rock Springs mayor for 12 years overall.
He first took office in 2003 and served as mayor until 2011. He was reelected for a third term in 2018 and served through the end of 2022, electing not to run for a fourth term last year amid the misconduct allegations.
Joe Hampton, Kaumo’s attorney, said the way the city’s bidding process was handled and Kaumo’s actions were unprecedented.
“In his 12 years as mayor this never came up,” Hampton said. “Mr. Kaumo did not make a habit of this kind of behavior.”
Kaumo was accused of using his position as mayor to obtain private documents and sealed bid proposals submitted from competing firms in summer 2020. The former mayor argued these confidential documents had been provided to him by other people.
Ruby argued he used his position of authority to pressure city employees, turning his focus to these people when the City Council wouldn’t give him the votes he wanted.
“I don’t think there’s any coincidences in this case,” Ruby said. “He’s putting himself in a position to win the contract.”
There were three important junctures in the bidding process.
The first began when the original selection committee chose the JFC bid. Kaumo reiterated multiple times Tuesday he had no communications regarding his bid in the lead up to the committee’s selection.
Next came the first council meeting where the JFC bid was to be finalized for selection.
It was in the lead up to this meeting that a complaint was filed about Kaumo’s bid and questions started to arise about why it was selected when it was about $250,000 higher than the other two competing bids.
Kaumo went into protection mode at this point, sending communications to city council members about why they should support his company’s bid and the committee that selected it.
He also said at one point the lowest bidder on the project would do a “shitty job.”
The City Council voted to reject the JFC bid three days later.
After The Rejection
The third juncture in the case happened after a second request for proposal (RFP) was put out for bids upon the JFC bid being rejected.
Kaumo requested that heightened requirements be put on the bids for a second RFP, which Ruby argued was done to give his company a better chance of securing the project.
At the final council meeting held to select the winning bidder, Kaumo voted against choosing another company besides his own.
He argued on Tuesday that voting on the RFP wasn’t a conflict because it wasn’t his company he was voting on. Ruby disagreed.
“If he had been successful with his attempts, they could have redrafted a new RFP he could’ve won,” he said. “That is so clearly a conflict and admission of guilt.”
Kaumo described one of his competitors, Brandt Lyman of Western Engineers and a former employee of his, as disgruntled and said he had complained about prior bids his company did not win.
Hampton attempted to paint a picture of equally bad conflicts of interest between Lyman and Rock Springs City Council member Rob Zotti, who voted on each of the bid proposals, calling the investigation “one-sided.”
“It’s clear in that Mr. Zotti and Mr. Lyman have a relationship and Mr. Zotti is lobbying for Western Engineers,” Hampton said. “They are similar crimes that should be investigated with a similar amount of vigor.”
Lyman was the first to complain about the bidding process after JFC Engineering was originally selected for a $3.8 million project in Rock Springs, a project Kaumo said he was particularly passionate and knowledgeable about.
Lyman first brought his complaint to Zotti, whose Wyoming Financial business insures many projects for Western Engineers. Zotti then acted on this complaint by discussing with fellow council members the process that was originally used to select JFC.
“I didn’t try to influence anyone to try and award me a project,” Lyman said on the witness stand.
Hampton also brought up a get-together held at a Rock Springs bar on the night of the second RFP vote where enough City Council members were present to be a quorum.
Under the Wyoming Public Meetings Act, public notice must be provided whenever there is a quorum of elected officials meeting together. No investigation took place into this gathering.
Judge Greer did not find any of these arguments compelling.
“This case is not about a number of things,” he said. “This is really a case of the mayor extending improper influence over decision makers, in this case the City Council.”
Handling Of The Case
The charges stem from a nearly two-year investigation by the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation and the FBI filed in August 2022.
The investigation into Kaumo started in fall 2020, leading Hampton to criticize DCI Agent Dan Allison on Tuesday for taking as long as he did to file charges, which finally came during the height of the 2022 primary elections.
Hampton later apologized for insinuating Allison’s delay was politically motivated.
Allison said the reason behind the delay was because of a major child pornography case opening up shortly after he started investigating Kaumo.
Hampton, speaking on behalf of Kaumo to Cowboy State Daily after the hearing, said he and his client are pleased with the sentence.
“We think it’s a fair result in the interest of accountability,” he said.
Kaumo had originally been scheduled for a four-day bench trial, but Greer said a plea deal was arranged between the former mayor and Ruby late last week.
Still, Tuesday’s hearing was far from a cut-and-dry sentencing, as no agreement had been determined on Kaumo’s punishment.
Ruby proposed Kaumo receive a $10,000 total fine, the maximum for the two charges he pleaded guilty to. Hampton proposed a much lower $500 fine on each.
Greer opted to assess the maximum $5,000 on the misconduct charge and no penalty for conflict of interest, merging the two counts. He also included $220 in court fees. Kaumo must pay the penalty by Aug. 1.
If found guilty on all six charges, Kaumo could have received up to $30,000 in fines.