Of 12K hoax trans bathroom complaints, Utah auditor investigates 5 that may be ‘good faith’

Utah Auditor John Dougall, a Republican who has criticized the state’s new transgender bathroom law, says there ‘clearly is still a misunderstanding’ of his office’s duties to enforce the law

By: Katie McKellar, Utah News Dispatch

As now more than 12,000 hoax complaints have flooded the state’s newly-created online tip website over the past three weeks since Utah’s new transgender bathroom law went into full effect, Utah State Auditor John Dougall issued an update Wednesday announcing that so far five complaints appear to be “good faith” and his office is investigating further.

“Of the more than 12,000 complaints received, the overwhelming majority are frivolous at best and transparent hoaxes at worst,” Dougall said in a prepared statement. “Indeed, we have identified only five complaints for which we will provide greater review.”

Dougall — who in recent weeks has criticized Utah’s new transgender bathroom law and his fellow Republicans for making him “bathroom monitor” — added that even though “none of those five complaints detail a clear allegation of a violation” of the law, “each complaint might reflect a good-faith effort to attempt to make (a) plausible allegation of a government entity’s violation of statute.”

“We will review these five complaints to determine whether the allegations require further investigation, as required by the Legislature’s mandate codified in statute,” Dougall said.

Utah’s new law (with some exceptions) restricts transgender people from accessing certain bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with in publicly owned and controlled buildings including public schools, the Utah Capitol, and city and county buildings.

Dougall’s office began fielding complaints as required by law on May 1 when the enforcement provision of HB257 took effect. The law only requires Dougall’s office to investigate allegations that a government entity has failed to comply with the law. It doesn’t require the state Auditor’s Office to investigate the actions of individuals, Dougall emphasized again Wednesday.

“Unfortunately,” Dougall said, “there clearly is still a misunderstanding of the Office’s duties under the statute. To reiterate: We only investigate alleged violations of the Statute by government entities. We will not investigate allegations about an individual’s bathroom use, and we will not investigate or determine an individual’s sex or gender.”

Dougall told Utah News Dispatch on Wednesday that he couldn’t provide specific information about the allegations because they’re under investigation, but he said the complaints involve a “mix of different governmental entity” buildings, and the complaints are more to do with “individuals” rather than the government agency.

“So these five still technically missed the mark” because they involve a “person or an incident,” he said, rather than a complaint about a governmental entity’s compliance. “But it looks like a good faith effort, so we’ll try to adapt it into our specific purview based on what they’ve alleged and we’ll go from there.”

Dougall said those complaints seemed to “imply that the government had a problem, so we’ll ignore the person and focus on the governmental piece.”

“We’ll use this as a learning experience to say, OK, how does this investigative process work for these kinds of issues,” Dougall said.

Dougall said after investigating the complaints, his office will do what it normally does after an investigation and release a report. It’s unclear when that might be, he said, given it’s his office’s first time handling these types of complaints.

Utah’s transgender bathroom restrictions

HB257 restricts transgender individuals from accessing certain bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with. It’s a complex bill with many caveats:

  • It only applies to public schools and government-owned or controlled facilities, like the Utah Capitol or city and county buildings. It does not apply to any privately owned buildings.
  • In public schools, it restricts access to bathrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms, while in other government-owned facilities only changing rooms and locker rooms are restricted.
  • It includes no explicit penalties to punish a transgender person for simply entering a government-owned bathroom they identify with — unless there are circumstances or behavior that cause “affront or alarm.”
  • It does, however, make it a crime for a person to simply enter a sex designated changing room that does not correspond with their “biological sex,” and they could also face increased criminal penalties for other crimes committed in that situation.
  • It allows exceptions if a person has legally changed their birth certificate to correspond with the sex-designation of the changing room and has undergone a primary sex characteristic surgical procedure.
  • It does not require Utahns to show documentation or paperwork to access a bathroom or privacy space.
  • It does, however, require government entities to contact law enforcement in response to complaints or allegations of criminal behavior, which could include simply accessing a sex-designated changing room that doesn’t correspond with someone’s “biological sex.”

Any alleged violation “must have occurred at a publicly owned or controlled facility, program, or event,” the auditor’s website states. “When possible, citizens should make a good faith effort to address and resolve concerns with the government entity before submitting a complaint to the State Auditor.”

If an auditor’s investigation substantiates a violation and if a government entity “fails to cure” it within 30 days, the auditor could refer the violation to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, and the school or agency could face a fine of up to $10,000 per violation per day, according to the bill.

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