It seems then-Attorney General John Swallow's name was on everyone's lips when Jeremy Johnson sat down with federal prosecutors to try to nail down a plea deal in the St. George businessman's criminal case.
Recordings reveal Johnson offering up Swallow in plea negotiations
On one hand, Johnson was trying to shield Swallow by including him on a proposed list of family, friends and colleagues he wanted protected from prosecution of Johnson's I Works business dealings. In this instance, though, he was wondering whom he could safeguard by providing evidence on Swallow.
Johnson secretly recorded that behind-the-scenes conversation at the federal courthouse in January 2013 and a separate session months earlier with prosecutors, copies of which were obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
They reveal a sometimes contrite, sometimes angry, sometimes weeping Johnson, struggling with himself as much as prosecutors, torn between his professed innocence and his emotional desire to prevent his actions from harming loved ones, whom he claimed prosecutors threatened to indict if he did not plead guilty.
Bubbling up throughout these meetings is Swallow, who had worked with Johnson to obtain political donations for former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and then helped the embattled businessman with an effort to stall a federal investigation of I Works.
That plan failed. The Federal Trade Commission sued Johnson in late 2010. About six months later, the feds indicted him on a mail fraud charge.
By late 2012, he was in plea negotiations, spurred on, Johnson has said, by threats from Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Ward to indict his family, including his parents and wife, as well as friends and former employees, if he didn't plead guilty.
U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow has denied any threats were made. His office declined to comment for this story. Johnson's attorney, Ron Yengich, did not return an email or phone call seeking comment. Both sides are under a judge's order not to talk publicly about the case.
Let's make a deal • In a September 2012 meeting at the U.S. attorney's Salt Lake City offices, prosecutors showed Johnson a PowerPoint presentation of their case against him on two new charges, money laundering and bank fraud, to which Johnson apparently had already informally agreed to plead guilty, though he still maintained his innocence.
In return, prosecutors apparentlyhad agreed they would not charge anyone else related to their investigation of I Works.
That wasn't enough for Johnson: "You guys already know that I'm willing to plead guilty, so this whole trying to convince me I'm guilty, it's about as useful as me trying to convince you I'm not. No matter what I show you or give you, you're going to be convinced you're right just like I am. I'm willing to plead guilty to avoid you harming other people. And so when you put these little caveats in ...where we won't do anything to anyone connected to I Works, to me it's just some kind of sneaky way for you to go, 'Well we found this person doing this other thing that's not connected to I Works.' So after I plead guilty, what's to stop you from launching your assault and indicting all these people and wrecking their lives, too."
Ward tries to assure Johnson: "We don't have any cases in the works against anybody. We're just saying that anything that's not I Works related or anything that happens after you entered into a plea, would be fair game. And it would have to be something that has no connection to I Works."
Johnson agrees to plead guilty but then, with emotion, says: "My concern, like you know, is my family, my friends, the people I care about. So when I hear you're going to indict them, there's nothing I won't do to stop you. I know better than anyone the enormous power that you wield and I know what it will do to their lives, their reputations, their finances. I'll put a bullet in my head if you ask me to [do so] to stop so I'm fine with this [proposed plea deal]. But I swear you'll go straight to hell if I sign this and you hurt anybody else."
The deal collapses • A plea hearing was scheduled and then rescheduled. It finally took place Jan. 11, 2013, four days after Swallow became attorney general. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune the night before, Johnson restated his innocence, explaining that he planned to plead guilty only to protect others.
He brought to court two lists: one that prosecutors had presented his then-attorney, Nathan Crane, and another one Johnson had sent to Ward that contained names he wanted the feds to guarantee they would not indict. Johnson apparently believed he had that assurance.
When U.S. District Judge David Nuffer asked Johnson during the hearing if he had any understanding with prosecutors that was not in the actual plea agreement, Johnson produced the first list. Ward agreed to admit it into the official record.
Johnson then pulled out the second list, and Ward agreed to make that public as well. On that tally: Swallow's name.
Carlos Esqueda, who at the time was over the public-corruption unit of the U.S. attorney's office, rushed to the prosecution table, and pointed at the second list. At that point, the sides recessed into private discussions to try to save a deal in danger of unraveling.
Present in those talks were Johnson, Crane, Ward, Phil Viti and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lunnen, a second prosecutor on the case.
Though Ward had accepted placing both lists on the record, the prosecutors reiterated behind closed doors what they had told Johnson that they could not agree to a list of people shielded from possible prosecutionbut could provide a more general immunity statement in the proposed plea deal.
Johnson, the recording shows, was again concerned he didn't have sufficient guarantees that his guilty plea would protect others. Swallow's name quickly surfaced.
Crane: "Sure we understand that. Is there anyone besides Swallow you're concerned about."
Lunnen: "We're not going to do the list, Nathan. I'll just tell you now."
Crane: "The reason I say that is that's the biggest concern that Jeremy has is putting other people through what he's been through."
Ward: "If they committed a crime other than this, they may be prosecuted; they may not. I don't know. We don't know if John Swallow did anything and if he did, what he did."
Crane: "Besides Swallow are you aware of any criminal investigation going on?"
Ward: "There may be somebody on this list we don't know about who was dealing with John Swallow that we don't know about. We just can't put names on lists."
Viti tells Johnson the ethical standards of a plea deal: "Some cases are meant to be tried and that's OK, and you get your day in court and we get our day in court and we leave it up to the jury. That's our business. That's what we do. But we will never take a plea from someone who believes they are innocent. We can't do that, Jeremy. That would bemorally, ethically wrong. We couldn't sleep at night."
Still, Johnson demurs on his guilt: "I'm going to agree with all this crap that you guys know very well I don't agree with. But I'm going to do it. But I want the assurance that you're not going to hurt "
Lunnen: "If you don't agree, you cannot possibly go through with this plea because you have to "
Johnson: "I will."
'High public official' •The talks eventually return to Swallow as prosecutors try to shore up their credibility with Johnson over their assurance for no further I Works-related prosecutions.
Ward: "Nobody's under investigation unless it's the idea Jeremy came to us with some information that we concluded relates to John Swallow. It's not I Works related in my mind but somebody might make it seem I Works related. But it may be related to a bribe so I can tell you that's something that we're interested in. And we're interested because Jeremy provided that much information to us. We reached those conclusions about it."
Johnson: "I didn't "
Ward: "Whether it's accurate or not. Whether we're right about it "
Crane: "Just to be clear: We have never said John Swallow, Mark Shurtleff, anybody."
Ward: "We drew our own conclusions."
Viti: "When you said a 'high public official' and we see John Swallow's name [on the courtroom list], it sort of. ... We're not that good at math but we ... "
The meeting goes on with no resolution.
Johnson: "You've put me in a really hard situation here. I'm reacting the way any normal person would. And I'm honest-to-God trying to do the right thing. I'll take any punishment. I need to know you're not going to hurt them."
The meeting ends but not before Johnson throws out a proposal.
Johnson: "What if I help you with the Swallow thing? Will you leave everyone else alone if I do that?"
Lunnen: "That'd help you maybe down the road, but we can't. We've talked about this a thousand times. It's not a quid pro quo, they call it, where you say, 'If you do this, I won't do this.' That's not the way we think and we can't because it's unethical on our part. We can't agree not to prosecute someone because we prosecute someone else."
Back in open court, the hearing ended with no plea.
About two months later, the feds indicted Johnson and four new defendants former managers or employees at I Works but no Johnson family members on 86 counts.
Since then, a political scandal has erupted. Swallow has stepped down as attorney general, and he and Shurtleff who have proclaimed their innocence face a criminal investigation.
Listen to recordings
To hear excerpts from these recordings, go to sltrib.com.