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PhenomeCon Contracts Enrich Select Speakers

It took several records requests, multiple granted appeals, and an order issued by the Utah State Records Committee, but Uintah County was finally convinced to release its 2023 PhenomeCon contracts to Expanding Frontiers Research (EFR). Legal counsel for Uintah County argued the contracts, which the County calls “Talent Agreements,” were exempt from disclosure, right up to the point the State Records Committee unanimously ruled otherwise in March. Nonetheless, Uintah County then delayed providing EFR the records until three days past the end of the 30-day period allowed for compliance that began April 1, the date the order was formally issued.

Access a folder containing the PhenomeCon contracts recently obtained as well as other documents referenced and linked in this blogpost.

EFR first obtained heavily redacted versions of the contracts along with dozens of responsive emails through appeal in December. The contracts show names of PhenomeCon speakers and amounts they were to be paid in speaker fees. The more recently received unredacted documents verify how select speakers were in some instances paid five to six times more than their speaker fee. The additional compensation was based on revenue collected through “add on” events they attended, per diem allowances, and similar items. PhenomeCon attendees pay an initial price to get through the door and are then offered opportunities throughout the weekend to pay more money to gain further access to the speakers and participate in extra, or add on, activities. Select speakers receive up to half the net revenue generated during those activities.

One of those speakers is Thomas Winterton. He is credited with suggesting the creation of the conference that began in 2021, is a member of a conference organizing committee, and is among the speakers who personally profit most from the county-sponsored event. The circumstances reflect noncompliance with what may be the most fundamental part of universally accepted ethics of managing public funds: no one influencing their allocation benefits personally from their disbursement.

Winterton is a cast member of the cable television show The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch and, as Uintah County counsel indicated to the State Records Committee, strongly objected to the release of the contracts sought by EFR. Winterton's speaker fee is listed as $1,000. The unredacted formula for establishing his total compensation may now be viewed and includes up to an additional 50% of revenue collected from certain add on events, namely, a behind the scenes dinner, VIP meals, and “Escorted Trips to the Perimeter of Skinwalker Ranch.”

From Thomas Winterton's 2023 PhenomeCon contract:

Cross-referencing payouts to Thomas Winterton from a file of PhenomeCon expenses obtained through a 2023 records request demonstrates there were $5,873 in payments actually reported to be issued to him for that year's conference. There were also $750 in payments issued to his wife, Melissa Winterton (a $300 speaker fee plus another $450 for add on activities). Some of those payouts are documented in the image below, page one of a three-page 2023 PhenomeCon expense file:

That brings the total since 2021 in Uintah County payments issued to Thomas Winterton and his Dabato, LLC, for PhenomeCon, an annual three-day conference, to $16,368. That does not include additional compensation issued to his wife.

Winterton's Intermountain Economic Consulting, a firm operated with Secret of Skinwalker Ranch fellow cast members Brandon Fugal and James Morse, was additionally issued a combined $175,500 from Uintah, Daggett and Duchesne Counties in 2021 for economic development services. It is unclear specifically what was provided in exchange for the funds or if the county commissioners were satisfied with the return on the public's investment. None of the several commissioners emailed and left telephone messages chose to respond to the requests for comment made in preparation for EFR's related 2022 blogpost, Skinwalker Cast Members Received $175k in County Economic Development Funds.

Additional information revealed in the now unredacted 2023 PhenomeCon contracts includes a paragraph stipulating the “Talent... shall not make any disparaging or derogatory statement regarding the Event or any person or entity connected to the Event”. The contracts also require “exclusivity,” forbidding speakers from appearing at “any fan-related event” within 300 miles between July and October. There is a confidentiality clause, stating, "Talent shall not disclose the terms of this Agreement to any third-party, except Talent's attorney, agent or tax professional (on a need-to-know basis only), who shall agree to be bound by the foregoing confidentiality obligation."

Additional contract stipulations include frequency of promotional social media posts and mandatory attendance at press and media events. Uintah County offers to provide the speaker with material for posting on social media as well as personnel for assistance in “dealing with the public” during photo and autograph sessions, ensuring the promotion of PhenomeCon in ways the County and event organizers find most advantageous.

EFR contends that substantial conflicts of interest arise when individuals claiming to be conducting scientific research serve up and endorse sensational content and statements in exchange for financial compensation. The PhenomeCon and its relationship with cast members of The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch provide textbook examples of such conflicts of interest. It is abundantly clear the cast members, who dubiously claim to be doing scientific investigation at the ranch, have financial incentives to promote sensational content, dismiss prosaic explanations, and obstruct the release of data and information that would jeopardize their personal financial interests. They're arguably contractually obligated.

Moreover, Thomas Winterton's participation on the organizing committee creates deeper conflict, given the public funds used to underwrite the conference. In spite of multiple requests, no protocols have ever been provided about how Uintah County and its organizing committee arrive at decisions about who is invited to speak and how their speaker fee and compensation packages are established, circumstances considered to be at the heart of government transparency and ethical best practices.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been budgeted by Uintah County for PhenomeCon. Proponents, such as Uintah County Travel and Tourism Director Lesha Coltharp, argue the event sells tickets to offset expenses and brings substantial revenue to the area.

“Coltharp contends the real value is in the money PhenomeCon makes for local businesses,” FOX 13 News Utah reported in February 2023. “She estimates it to be a million dollars.”

By September, she apparently opted to substantially back off that claim, cutting the figure in half. “Coltharp estimates the economic benefit to the city and county to be about a half a million dollars,” FOX reported at that time.

Winterton denies the inherent conflicts of interest while, similarly to Coltharp, arguing PhenomeCon is responsible for substantial local revenue. During a November 2022 interview with EFR he drew from the hip and fired the assertion that the economic benefits “this year are well north of $600,000 for one week”:

The facts of the matter may be explored in records published by the Utah State Tax Commission. PhenomeCon is held in September in Vernal, Utah. Tax records repeatedly fail to show anything particularly significant about September. The two adjacent months were more prosperous four of six times between 2021 and 2023, the years the conference was held. Furthermore, the amounts of taxable sales and purchases in Vernal in September 2023 were actually down from the previous year, while PhenomeCon, according to records obtained from Uintah County, was provided a budget of $215,000 that year, its highest allocation of funds to date. That budget included over $54k for speakers, over $67k for per diem, lodging and travel, and some $48k for catering.

The 2021-2023 Vernal taxable sales figures:

As shown above, taxable sales and purchases in Vernal during the month of September 2022 totaled $58.1 million, a 30% increase over September of the previous year. However, Vernal taxable sales for the prior month, August 2022, were $55.5 million, a comparable 26% increase over 2021. Neither month came close to taxable sales for October 2022, which totaled $84 million, a steep 84% increase over 2021.

For 2023, the most recent conference year, Vernal taxable sales in September were $57.9 million, actually dipping from 2022, while August nonetheless showed an 11% increase over 2022 with sales of $61.6 million and outperforming September 2023. October 2023 taxable sales were down 23% from the prosperous 2022, but at $64.6 million were still significantly higher than September 2023.

Thomas Winterton was emailed and provided the records from the Utah State Tax Commission. He was offered an opportunity to comment on the figures and once again invited to provide verification of his assertion PhenomeCon generates in excess of $600k in local revenue the week it takes place. He was also offered an opportunity to explain why he objects to the publication of PhenomeCon contracts. As of this writing, no response was received.

Travis Taylor, PhD, is a popular cable television personality, regularly appearing on The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch and Ancient Aliens. His speaker fee was listed as $3,500 while he was actually issued $9,174.02, according to Uintah County records obtained. Taylor's “add on” events apparently included a behind the scenes dinner and a “VIP Lunch/Dinner.”

Additional Skinwalker Ranch associates compensated during Uintah County's 2023 PhenomeCon include Erik Bard (speaker fee, add ons, travel and per diem totaling $7,428.34), Dragon Security (5,638.35), Caleb Bench (4,488.35), George Knapp (3,283.52), and James Keenan (2061.28), among others. Vernal City Manager Quinn Bennion, another reported member of the organizing committee, was issued $279 as part of a “PhenomeCon VIP Dinner.”

While PhenomeCon proponents may argue the 2023 budget of $215,000 reportedly raised more than was spent, as suggested by a revenue document obtained, that money cannot be demonstrated to be going back into the community, but into the pockets of the so-called talent and those who cater to them. Critics will continue to assert the funds of the public are being used for the financial enrichment of the few.

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Fan conventions of any sort are high risk investment with modest profits and it really does disappoint me to see a county government putting itself into the role of a backer, Dozens of paranormal themed conventions have gone bankrupt in the economic tides of the last couple decades. It would not be a stretch to imagine a loss of 20% or more based on something as fickle as the weather. The externality of increased tax revenue do not show what has been claimed by the county tourism official. A six figure increase should in the data and it clearly does not.

The modest profit can lull the same officials to back with the same level of risk in a phenomena…

Jack Brewer
Jack Brewer
3 days ago
Replying to

I'd add, Amy, there is arguably substantial information lacking from Uintah County's accounting of the revenue and expenses of PhenomeCon. In government balance sheets, real-world costs like labor often don't even show up and get factored. FOX News aptly reported info to that effect in its coverage.

Thank you for your interest and comments.

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