As he watched Utah’s government struggle to roll out a coronavirus testing program in 2020, the Salt Lake Tribune’s chairman, Paul Huntsman, turned into a watchdog: He formed an investigative unit that spring to look into how the state was awarding testing contracts without competitive bidding.
But in a highly unusual arrangement, Huntsman didn’t use his own newspaper. He started a company instead, working with lawyers to investigate how tens of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts were awarded under Utah’s then-lieutenant governor and now-governor, Spencer Cox.
Paul Huntsman’s continuing efforts to investigate the man who defeated his brother have unsettled many in the Tribune’s newsroom. Several journalists — who asked not to be named, to avoid running afoul of Huntsman — are concerned the chairman’s actions are an outgrowth of a purported rivalry between Cox and Huntsman’s family, one of the wealthiest and most prominent in the state. Some believe the newsroom’s independence is compromised by the very existence of Huntsman’s investigative company, which he named Jittai, using a Japanese word that can mean “true state” or “actual condition.”
The Tribune has used Jittai’s findings in several news reports, and Huntsman has written two columns describing his reasons for starting the company.
In an interview with The Washington Post, the chairman strongly denied using his company or the newspaper for his brother’s behalf, and said Jittai’s purpose was to expose mismanagement and corruption in the state public health system. Some of the companies Jittai has sought to investigate have raised the same concern. “I’m shocked,” Huntsman said. “Given how big these issues are, all they can come up with is to take a potshot at my brother Jon.”
Huntsman is a something of a hero among journalists in Salt Lake City. His family investment trust bought the financially troubled Tribune in 2016 and three years later converted it into the first nonprofit metropolitan newspaper in the United States, with Huntsman serving as chair of an 11-person governing board. He said the Tribune has since used tax-deductible grants and public donations to help stabilize its finances.
But Huntsman’s leadership has sometimes caused friction in the newsroom. The paper’s top editor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, resigned in August 2020, several weeks after the Republican gubernatorial primary ended and a few months after Huntsman said he created Jittai. She cited “differences of opinion” with Huntsman about “newsroom coverage, management and policies.”
People inside and outside the paper interpreted Napier-Pearce’s departing comments as a veiled criticism of Huntsman’s alleged involvement in campaign coverage. “I have heard there was displeasure from the top at our coverage of the campaign [and] she was the human shield that insulated us from that,” Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke wrote on Twitter at the time. “Our reporters were pros and did their jobs.”
Napier-Pearce eventually became a Cox spokeswoman and senior adviser. She and the governor’s office both declined to comment for this report.
Huntsman said he “always kept an arm’s-length relationship” with the Tribune’s news staff when it came to coverage involving his brother Jon, who was Utah’s governor from 2005 to 2009, served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and China, and ran for president in 2012 before attempting to retake the governor’s office in 2020.
Paul Huntsman said he formed Jittai that year, some time before his brother conceded to Cox in July, using several hundred thousand dollars of his own money. He did so, he said, because he did not feel the Tribune’s 80-member newsroom had the depth and expertise to tackle the record searches involved in investigating the state’s testing contracts.
“There’s a lack of financial fluency” among the news staff, Huntsman told The Post. “This story requires expertise in securities fraud, health-care fraud. It requires technical and scientific knowledge. … I’d like to see [reporters] broaden their skill sets. This is moving beyond liberal-arts degrees.”
With many years of experience running the Huntsman family’s investment portfolio, he said, “it was more natural, based on my background, to get in and do it myself. We could do it much faster than turning it over” to the newsroom.
He said Jittai — which has no full-time staff or regular payroll but contracts with lawyers for its projects — has filed hundreds of requests under state public-records law for documents about the testing program Cox managed, as well as comparable programs in other states. The company also alleged in a lawsuit last year that Cox illegally delayed access to public documents related to Utah’s pandemic response.
Huntsman has vowed to make the findings public. Some of the information Jittai has dug up has already made its way into the newspaper he chairs.
Lauren Gustus, who succeeded Napier-Pearce as editor, acknowledged that the Tribune has used information from Huntsman’s company. But, she said, “we have treated [Jittai] as a source, independently verifying those public documents by requesting them ourselves.”
Among at least four Tribune articles that used Jittai’s material was one published last year about the lead contractor for Utah’s coronavirus testing program, Nomi Health, and a subcontractor that saw its stock price and profits surge despite supplying coronavirus tests of questionable accuracy.
That story — along with follow-ups, including one seeking donations to the newspaper — did not mention Jittai’s involvement in the reporting. Huntsman disclosed his company’s role in a column a month later. (Gustus said Friday that the newspaper would add notes to previous stories that did not mention Jittai.)
In an open letter to the Tribune’s newsroom last month, Nomi chief executive Mark Newman accused Huntsman of trying to “re-litigate” his brother’s election loss.
“There is a line between healthy skepticism required to hold public institutions accountable and outright self-serving, special-interest cynicism designed to advance ulterior motives,” he wrote. “We believe your team in the newsroom needs to separate itself immediately from Paul Huntsman and his special unit of writers, litigators and publicists.”
Huntsman insisted the state’s contracting and testing problems transcend any political rivalry.
He said he started the investigatory effort to restore “trust and integrity” and “transparency” to the state’s contracting procedures, which he said were riddled with opacity, cronyism and other bad practices during the rush to confront the pandemic.
Questions about the design and implementation of the state’s program, known as TestUtah, predate Huntsman and Jittai’s involvement. Tribune reporters began following the story early in the pandemic; a report published in May 2020, for example, highlighted the rush to award more than $84 million in no-bid contracts. “Lawmakers and whistleblowers are increasingly demanding answers about how the state awarded lucrative contracts and stewarded taxpayer dollars during the emergency,” the article said.
As Huntsman wrote last summer in a column disclosing Jittai’s founding, “I am a Utah taxpayer who is not amused when the state government and the private sector misuse public funds, some of which I believe went to private gain.”
Gustus said neither Huntsman nor anyone else on the Tribune’s board has ever directed the paper to publish an article, or reviewed a story before it was published. She portrayed Jittai as just another source of information.
“Would I love to have more folks on our team who can do this kind of reporting?” she asked. “Absolutely.”
Nevertheless, the Tribune’s journalists have lately been able to push the testing story forward on their own. On Thursday, the newspaper broke news that federal investigators had concluded flawed work by the state’s testing program posed “an imminent threat” to public health. It reported that an inspector had found “contaminated” test kits on a laboratory table next to yogurt, rice cakes and a bag of Cheez-Its.
None of the reporting in that story relied on information from Jittai.