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Curtis says he heard about 3 incidents of sexual misconduct by former Provo police chief

SALT LAKE CITY — Congressman John Curtis clarified Friday that as Provo's mayor, he heard three — not two — complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct by John King.

The first time, Curtis said, he warned King that even if his alleged actions had been misinterpreted, the former police chief shouldn't put himself in positions where his actions could be misinterpreted.

The second time, he ordered King to retake sexual harassment training, and reiterated that he should not go past a certain point while visiting women at the department's dispatch center.

The third time, after a student volunteer accused King of rape in early 2017, Curtis asked for King's resignation.

Provo Police Chief John King speaks during a roundtable discussion about hate crimes at the Utah Law and Justice Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Provo Police Chief John King speaks during a roundtable discussion about hate crimes at the Utah Law and Justice Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.

A lawsuit was brought earlier this week by five women who accuse King of misconduct ranging from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching, groping and rape. The five women seek an undefined monetary amount and new measures to prevent sexual misconduct in Provo.

And their lawsuit accuses Curtis, as mayor, of sending a message to employees that "Chief King's power was unlimited, his actions unchecked, and any complaints against him would be ignored."

But the Republican U.S. representative for Utah's 3rd District told the Deseret News editorial board on Friday that his choices were more difficult than they might appear in hindsight.

"I think when you look at this from where you all are sitting, and you have five women who say that something's happened, yes, that looks more obvious," Curtis said.

The lawsuit makes his current job more difficult, he said, tearing up as he described waking up each day and wondering, "Is this the day that somebody accuses me of something?"

He referenced a former Provo city and congressional campaign staffer and a city councilwoman who have criticized his leadership and said some people are trying to "destroy" him.

"I've already been accused of trying to make me the victim and not appreciating what happens to the women, but this will leave a mark," he said.

King was hired in November 2013 after abrupt resignations from two previous positions — including one, in 2012, that came a week after a female subordinate had accused him of sexual assault. Provo officials have said a contractor failed to uncover that allegation.

Soon after becoming chief, the lawsuit alleges, King became a regular at the department's dispatch center, where plaintiffs and other witnesses told plaintiffs' attorneys that he would stand uncomfortably close to dispatchers' chairs and stare down their shirts.

One plaintiff alleges that in July 2014, she reported this behavior — as well that King had referred to her breasts as "puppies" — before taking a job in the private sector.

Curtis said Friday that his memory is that King had "looked at her inappropriately and it made her uncomfortable," and that it was a one-time incident.

Still, Curtis said, he needed to address it with King. They talked, he said, "about the potential to be misunderstood."

"We discussed that when he went into dispatch, he would not go into certain areas of dispatch," Curtis said.

The lawsuit alleges that the only result the complainant ever heard was that Curtis had given King a "heads up," and that King soon paid a visit to a dispatch supervisor — another plaintiff — and said with a chilling effect that he'd been told he looked at the breasts of female subordinates.

Curtis said he had forgotten about a third complaint when he released a statement earlier this week describing reports of his actions as "inaccurate."

That complaint was shared by a terminated male police officer and that officer's parent, Curtis said, amid a barrage of unrelated complaints about King.

In a December 2015 email obtained by the Deseret News through a records request, an anonymous emailer wrote to human resources that King "was very unprofessional in his interactions with a dispatcher," and a human resources employee copied Curtis on his reply.

Curtis said he responded by reiterating that King shouldn't go beyond a certain point in the dispatch center, requiring King to retake sexual harassment training, and anonymously surveying dispatchers to see if any felt uncomfortable around King. Only one did, he said.

Where the lawsuit faults Curtis for a fall 2014 meeting in which he allegedly told police supervisors "he did not want to receive any more complaints about Chief King," Curtis said he had a different memory.

The subject Curtis didn't want to hear any more complaints about was King's unpopular new beat policing program, he said, and he wanted to address rumors that King's tenure would be short-lived because the police chief's wife hadn't accompanied him to Utah.

"Not an ounce more than that," Curtis said. "Nothing else was implied."

Curtis also said that he didn't think a closed-door session of the City Council in late-2015 or early 2016, around the time of the allegations from the terminated officer and his parent, related to sexual misconduct by King.

Of the lawsuit — which he still hasn't read — Curtis said that attorneys are "trying to take advantage of these women again."

"He wants to get Provo City to settle, he wants to make it so uncomfortable, so ugly, that we just say, 'Make this thing go away,'" he said.

Plaintiffs' attorney Michael Young said in a statement that attorneys have tried for months to have a discussion with Provo and that the city "continues to fail these women by not taking responsibility, and accountability for hiring a person they never should have hired.

"To the extent that John Curtis was Mayor of Provo City at the time that Chief King was hired and sexually assaulted and harassed employees feels like he made mistakes, we welcome that conversation."

It's impossible to be mayor for eight years without presiding over employees who do inappropriate things, Curtis said Friday. He was balancing responsibilities to both accusers and the accused, knowing that if he doled out punishment prematurely, "you potentially could ruin a person."

But one fair criticism, he said, was that he erred in first announcing — after Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill declined to press charges on a 2017 rape allegation and Curtis demanded King's resignation, anyway — that King had resigned for family reasons, and by then throwing a going-away party for King at taxpayer expense.

"One of the things I'm learning, is what women expect is more than checking the boxes, legally," he said. "They need a lot of emotional support and understanding. And we don't talk a lot about that portion of what do you do when these things happen. So, in a way, if you think about this, I'm seeing, like, 'OK, my primary responsibility is to get this into the right hands.' I read her comments about how what I did made her feel, and it was clear to me that she expected more from me than just getting it into the right hands. Lesson learned."