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A complaint alleging that former Attorney General John Swallow raised illegal contributions for Sen. Mike Lee's successful 2010 race has prompted the Utah senator's campaign to begin contacting donors, asking them to sign statements that they did not violate the law.
The letters went out last week to a select group of donors who gave money around the time of Lee's Republican primary victory over Tim Bridgewater in June 2010.
The move was prompted by a complaint to the Federal Election Commission filed on the heels of revelations in court documents in the Swallow investigation that Jeremy Johnson, who faces scores of federal fraud charges stemming from his I Works business, told investigators that he laundered tens of thousands of dollars to Lee's campaign at Swallow's direction.
"[The letters were] limited to a couple of specific deposits, so it's probably 10 to 15 donors," said Ryan McCoy, who was Lee's campaign manager. "Obviously it's tied to the complaint … and the whole Jeremy Johnson thing and John Swallow thing, so we tried to tie anyone who possibly could have been connected to those two and then get a statement from them whether the funds were from their own account or whether they were reimbursed."
The Lee campaign recently received a notice from the FEC about the complaint. McCoy said the campaign is doing its "due diligence" so it can respond.
If campaign officials discover that some people were paid to donate to Lee's race, McCoy said, they would consult with the FEC on how to respond.
"Senator Lee wants to get to the bottom of this," McCoy said, "and, honestly, put it behind him."
Johnson told state investigators that he gave checks totaling about $50,000 to friends and family, who, in turn, donated money to the senator a way to circumvent federal campaign finance laws that limited contributions at the time to $2,400.
The embattled St. George businessman told investigators he engaged in a similar practice again at Swallow's request when former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff flirted with a U.S. Senate bid of his own, funneling $113,000 through so-called "straw donors" to the campaign of his close friend.
Swallow's attorney, Stephen McCaughey, declined to comment Tuesday, and Johnson is now under a gag order stemming from his criminal case.
The progressive Alliance for a Better Utah filed a complaint in June after Johnson's story came to light in a search warrant unsealed in the investigation of alleged misconduct by Swallow and Shurtleff. The two former officeholders, who face a combined 23 criminal charges, have maintained their innocence and vowed to be vindicated.
None of those charges has to do with Johnson's alleged straw donations.
If Johnson did reimburse or compensate friends who gave money to Lee's campaign, it would be a clear violation of federal election law, experts have said though not necessarily for the campaign but rather for the donors who participated. It would be up to the FEC or the U.S. Justice Department to take action on any violations.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, said Lee's campaign asking donors if they broke the law is an interesting approach, but warned it may not get to the truth.
"This is not exactly the kind of information that you're going to be forthcoming about if, one, you could have some trouble with the federal government as a result of your donation," she said, "or, two, you support the senator, you like what you did and you're happy about the outcome.
"I'm sure [Lee campaign officials] are trying to cover the bases the best they can," she added, "but I don't think that would do away with the need for further, much more thorough investigation on the FEC's part."
An investigation by the Utah House hinted that Johnson may have made straw donations to Lee and uncovered an email from Swallow to Johnson indicating several of the checks bounced.
In a June 2010 email to Johnson, Swallow wrote: "I was told that four [of] those checks bounced. I'll forward you the names."
"I am really sorry about the checks. I will get it fixed ASAP!" Johnson replied. "Let me know [whose] bounced. I was in a mad rush to get those so maybe I pushed a few people too hard."
Johnson told law enforcement that Swallow cashed some of the checks from the straw donors before the individuals could deposit the money that Johnson had given them.
The House probe identified four checks, totaling $9,600, to Lee's Senate campaign that bounced. The contributions ostensibly were from Arvin Lee Black, who was recently sent to prison for running a Ponzi scheme, Atia Black and Matthew Black. All three have ties to Johnson.