Weeks after finding out that the commander of the Utah National Guard would leave his post following an Army investigation, members of the state-based force stood in formation on an open field at Camp Williams under a warm September sun, waiting for Gov. Spencer Cox to pass in a Humvee as part of a ceremony recognizing a new adjutant general taking the helm.
Moments earlier during an impassioned speech, Cox told the soldiers and airmen that he considers overseeing the guard among “the most profound and the most sacred” of his responsibilities.
“I want you to know that it is a duty I take incredibly seriously,” Cox said. “It is often overwhelming. I think about you. I pray for you. I worry for you and your families. I care deeply about you, and I am so grateful for your sacrifice to our state and to our country.”
Three weeks earlier, Cox had placed Army Maj. Gen. Michael Turley on paid administrative leave, saying his decision was “based on the information” provided to him by the Department of the Army Inspector General.
On the day of Turley’s suspension, USA Today reported that a two-year DAIG investigation found Turley had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate soldier, citing unnamed sources familiar with the inquiry.
But two years before Cox’s decision — based on the federal findings — the governor’s office was alerted to broad allegations that Turley had made violent threats toward guard members, mishandled sexual misconduct cases and was “responsible for a hostile and unhealthy work environment,” according to 2021 emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
The state didn’t launch its own investigation into Turley until September 2022, spurred by a call from an Army Times reporter who asked Cox’s office for a comment on the Army’s investigation, according to emails obtained by The Tribune.
The Utah Division of Human Resource Management denied a request from The Tribune for its own investigative records. An administrative officer for the Department of Government Operations wrote, the “governor’s office claims ownership of these records as product created for the office by DHRM,” preventing the division from releasing them.
While it is unknown when the state’s investigation ended, the administrative officer added: “There were no formal charges or disciplinary action brought by the state.”
Days after his suspension, according to Cox, Turley decided to retire from the U.S. Army and step down as adjutant general. After leaving a voicemail for Turley, The Tribune was contacted by his legal counsel, who as of publication time declined to provide a statement.
Now Utah lawmakers are considering whether it should be easier to fire Utah’s top military commander.
‘There will be bodies in the street’
Early in the workday on Sept. 28, 2021, a constituent services staffer forwarded a letter to the executive assistant of Cox’s chief of staff, Jon Pierpont: “No contact information was provided for a response, but I thought it was important to share,” the staffer wrote in the email.
The anonymous letter said it was written by multiple members of the Utah National Guard. It leveled several accusations at Turley, alleging that he was “responsible for a hostile and unhealthy work environment” in the guard.
“As the Commander-in-Chief of the Utah National Guard, you are responsible for the overall climate and safety for all of those who serve in its ranks,” the letter read. “We know that you must trust General Turley to follow your vision for a professional working environment, that trust is not being honored. We write this with the belief that you do not know what is happening under General Turley’s leadership, or you would have dealt with it by now.”
According to the writers, Turley allegedly “routinely” made threats of physical violence against his subordinates in the guard, using phrases such as “‘I will shoot you in the face,’” and “‘there will be bodies in the street,’” they wrote.
The letter also alleged that there were “several cases of inappropriate sexual behavior where General Turley has chosen to gloss over or fail to address the problem head on,” adding that his typical response was to move the supervisor or refer them to counseling. The writers cited a specific case in which they claimed Turley overturned a reprimand of an officer who was investigated for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a subordinate. They alleged the general retaliated against the commander who issued the punishment by refusing to promote the commander.
“He talks a good game and even makes videos about how ‘it starts with me’ and how we all need to do our part to set a proper culture, but his actions fall short,” the letter said, continuing, “General Turley sent a clear message to the entire National Guard that he is ok with sexual misconduct, but not ok with the supervisors who report it.”
Under Turley’s leadership, the Utah National Guard held a sexual violence awareness campaign in November 2021. He joined kidnapping survivor and anti-sexual violence activist Elizabeth Smart at a Camp Williams town hall meeting on the topic in spring 2022.
Sexual violence is a growing problem in state National Guard units. In fiscal 2022, the National Guard Bureau — which administers National Guard units in all 50 U.S. states, as well as Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Guam — reported a 22% increase in sexual assault reports, rising from 704 in 2021 to 856. That reflects “the largest percentage increase recorded over the history of the program,” the report states.
Turley’s behavior, the anonymous letter writers added, “created an environment where those who serve under him are reluctant or unwilling to share information that is counter to what he wants to hear, this is an extremely dangerous thing to have in a military organization and leads to things being covered up or neglected if it will make the boss angry.”
“We felt it our duty to report this directly to you first,” they wrote to Cox’s office. “We will be filing a report with the DoD and possibly our congressman just to make sure that this does not go uninvestigated. All these claims are easily confirmed through a proper investigation.”
Two days after the arrival of the anonymous letter, a second anonymous complaint popped up in constituent services’ inbox. This letter writer said they were a service member and expressed “concern about the climate in” the Utah National Guard.
As a young officer, they wrote, Turley “developed a reputation as a bit of a tyrant,” adding that they were “surprised” Turley was selected as the adjutant general. It continued, “I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt when he became the tag [the adjutant general] but that behavior just continues to manifest itself. Now that he is the tag and the ultimate decision-maker it has become worse and [with] the nature of our business [Turley’s behavior] could be dangerous to our soldiers.”
The anonymous complaints appear to have been forwarded to Pierpont and the governor’s senior communications advisor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, on the day constituent services received the second note in September 2021.
Based on the complaints, Napier-Pearce told The Tribune, the governor met with Turley in early October 2021, and directed the adjutant general to commission a command climate survey of his subordinates and report back with the results.
Those results, provided in January of the following year, “were largely positive,” according to the governor’s office. “The governor directed Gen. Turley to make improvements based on the survey results,” Napier-Pearce added.
When asked whether the governor’s office could share the survey results or details about the survey, Napier-Pearce said, “My understanding is that the survey results were presented in person to the governor, but that he did not receive a written report. You might check with the Utah National Guard to see if they have an actual record that they can share.”
Lt. Col. Christopher Kroeber, a spokesperson for the guard, said such results may only be obtained through a formal public records request. The Tribune has requested those records.
Cox’s office did not instruct state agencies to investigate Turley or the claims made in the letters, as the anonymous complainants requested, until the next year, when Army Times reporter Davis Winkie reached out to the governor’s office in September 2022. Winkie asked in an email whether Cox was aware of allegations against Turley being investigated by the Army.
“Specifically, we are aware that Turley allegedly had an extramarital sexual relationship with an enlisted soldier for several years (including after becoming TAG in 2019) — both extramarital sexual conduct and a sexual relationship with an enlisted member (fraternization) are traditionally criminalized under military law. The investigation also reportedly involves false statement allegations too,” Winkie wrote.
The Army has not disclosed what allegations it investigated. The department has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Salt Lake Tribune, though a spokesperson said there were “substantiated findings.” In a statement, Cox said he was not provided a copy of the report.
Within an hour of receiving Winkie’s email, Pierpont forwarded the inquiry to Division of Human Resource Management Director John Barrand, and two hours later he sent Barrand the year-old anonymous complaints against Turley.
Emails obtained from the division indicate it began investigating the general and arranged an interview with him within a week of receiving the emails.
The division requested that the Army Inspector General share “information relating to this individual’s actions as a State employee,” records show, adding, “This information is crucial to Governor Cox as the direct manager of this individual.”
“Good evening,” a legal advisor responded. “The Inspector General of the Army declined to provide information to you in response to your query on behalf of the Governor of Utah.”
According to Napier-Pearce, that meant his hands were tied — Cox couldn’t respond without cause.
“The Governor’s Office was left with insufficient evidence to substantiate the allegations and had to wait for the results of the Army Inspector General’s investigation, or for additional evidence, before taking official action regarding Gen. Turley’s employment,” Napier-Pearce said in a statement.
She continued, “The Governor’s Office takes allegations of impropriety seriously and carefully addresses allegations that arise. In this case, the Governor’s Office promptly addressed each allegation against Gen. Turley. Unfortunately, the office’s investigation into the allegation of an inappropriate relationship was hindered due to a lack of information from the Army Inspector General.”
‘At the pleasure of the governor’
While state adjutant generals are nonpartisan, their selection is inherently political.
In 49 states — except Vermont, where the state assembly selects the state military force’s top official — adjutant generals are governor appointees. And until a few years ago, the head of South Carolina’s National Guard was popularly elected.
Turley’s predecessor over the Utah National Guard, Jefferson Burton, ran for and won a seat in the state Legislature the year after he retired from the Army.
Under Utah law, the adjutant general is appointed by the governor and holds office for a term of six years, but may be terminated by the governor “for cause.” Turley was appointed by former Gov. Gary Herbert in 2019, but served the majority of his shortened term under Cox.
“Now this is not something that you do in a vacuum when you choose the new adjutant general,” Herbert told The Tribune, adding that he consulted former adjutant generals during the screening process. “[Turley] was, I think, clearly the top of the list, and so I felt very good about it.”
Herbert, under whom Cox served as lieutenant governor, said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the results of the Army’s investigation. The former governor said he didn’t receive complaints against Turley during his time in office, but if he had, they would be “taken seriously — an investigation would ensue. ... It certainly wouldn’t be swept under the rug.”
Following the Division of Human Resource Management’s denial of The Tribune’s public records request, it’s unclear the extent to which the state probed allegations it had received against the former adjutant general, and what Cox may have learned through that process.
But Burton, the legislator and former adjutant general, proposes changing state law to make it easier for the governor to fire the Utah National Guard’s top commander.
“Many of you are aware of some of the challenges we had in the National Guard over the last couple of months due to some actions that were taken that were not appropriate,” Burton told the Veteran and Military Affairs Commission, which he chairs, during a November interim legislative meeting. " ... We find that we need to tighten [statute] up a little bit further, a little bit more.”
If the draft bill is approved by the Legislature, the law would say that adjutant generals serve “at the pleasure of the governor,” rather than allowing them to be terminated “for cause.”
As Cox handed the guard over to a new leader in September, Air Force Brig. Gen. Daniel Boyack didn’t flinch from acknowledging the circumstances under which he was assuming the new role.
“Our culture must continue to evolve and embrace repeated questions to the status quo,” Boyack said. “We need to use our diverse force to find new and better ways to do every single part of our mission. If we can think like this, we will continue to have a culture we can be proud of.”
Boyack told guard members, with their family members in bleachers behind him, that he planned to spend the majority of his time working to improve that culture. He invited the Utah service members to share their “cool ideas” for making it better.
“My promise to you is that I’m going to run as hard as I can to keep up with you, and never have anything in my conduct that would give you reason to question my integrity or my resolve,” Boyack said, addressing the soldiers and airmen for the first time as their commander. “I ask the same of each of you.”
Army Times reporter Davis Winkie contributed to this story.