Pressure on the county to make this happen came from several quarters: Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, State Community and Culture representative Lloyd Pendleton, and state Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George.
Shurtleff had shown a keen interest in the lost boys from Warren Jeff's FLDS compounds in Hildale and Colorado City. Media at the time reported that Paul Murphy, Shurtleff's spokesman, had an active role in addressing the needs of the boys and made repeated efforts to obtain zoning changes to allow use of a "donated" home in St. George to be used as the drop-in facility for the youths. The house was owned by Jeremy Johnson, who donated the "use" of the house to support the cause, but retained personal ownership.
Pendleton influenced Salt Lake County officials to make an arrangement with Garfield County-based New Frontiers for Families to act as the AmeriCorps host organization. Pendleton had ties with Michelle Benward, a vice president and clinical director of NFF. During 2007, Benward had lobbied the Utah Legislature to provide funding to aid the lost boys.
During the 2007 session, Sen. Hickman was a lead proponent of a bill, HB150, that earmarked $250,000 for programs to address homelessness in southern Utah. Legislative intent attached to the bill directed the state Department of Community and Culture to allocate $95,000 to make improvements to the Johnson home in St. George. The funds were used for this purpose, even though Johnson retained ownership and the rezoning was never obtained.
Benward was appointed the clinical director to oversee the St. George house on behalf of NFF. She was then enrolled by Salt Lake County as a paid AmeriCorps member while remaining employed by NFF in Escalante. This violated AmeriCorps regulations and federal law.
This hurried-up, non-contractual, illegally administered arrangement between Salt Lake County and New Frontiers had another, hidden purpose. According to the currently pending FTC complaint against Johnson, he funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through NFF as a conduit for his "grant-a-day" program operated through I-Works. Through our review of audited financial statements of NFF, and direct testimony from Benward, we verified these allegations in the FTC complaint.
This is just another case of Johnson running a "philanthropic cover" to conceal ill-gotten gains. And, most disturbing, is the fact that his $200,000-plus campaign donations to Shurtleff purchased political influence that led to taxpayer funding of this ugly arrangement.
Utah's new attorney general, John Swallow, was involved directly in Shurtleff's fundraising efforts. I have come to believe that Johnson fell into the trap of imagining that putting up appearances as a "good-guy philanthropist" would wipe away and cover up his baser activities as a clever fraudster.
Jim Wightman recently retired as director of internal audit in the Salt Lake County Auditor's Office. He holds a master's in accountancy from BYU and is a CPA. He lives in Bountiful.