Enigmatic owner of major payday-loan chain looms over the alleged scheme.
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In death, Provo businessman Richard Rawle is becoming something he was not in life: widely known to Utahns.
Just weeks after his passing, the wealthy owner of a payday loan/financial services company is at the center of a burgeoning scandal involving newly installed Utah Attorney General John Swallow.
St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson has said that Swallow brokered a deal involving Rawle that was to funnel money to an associate of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to halt a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Johnson.
Rawle, in a statement signed on his deathbed, said the deal was aimed only at connecting Johnson to lobbyists who could help him deal with the investigation. Swallow denies involvement other than putting Johnson and Rawle together.
Rawle's Dec. 8 death due to cancer at age 73 has removed a key part of the controversy, and left questions unanswered that might have proven key to the case.
If he were still alive, Rawle almost certainly would pepper his responses to those questions with expletives. Those who know him say that's the way he talked, but he also is described as a generous, devoted husband, father, grandfather and friend. Add to that his supreme self-confidence and a penchant for not mincing words, and a picture emerges of a man with a commanding presence who also had a quirky side to his personality.
Business blooms • The man with the eclectic persona was born in 1939 in Springville, where he grew up playing sports and earned a reputation as a rowdy, according to the family. He went on to play football at Dixie College in southern Utah.
Best friend and attorney Allen Young said he got to know Rawle in the 1970s when Rawle was the owner of the Rusty Nail pizza restaurant in Springville, a franchise he expanded to Provo. Rawle later started a chain of three restaurants called R.J. Wheatfields, with outlets in Salt Lake City's Trolley Square, Atlanta and Denver.
He became involved in an arcade and as a partner in check cashing stores in Virginia and Maryland, Young said.
"Then they came out to Salt Lake, because that is really where they lived, and they bought the Check City store on 2100 South and State, and it bloomed," Young said.
The company has grown to 71 outlets in five states, and offers loans online in 16 states. It markets a number of financial services besides payday loans, including other types of loans, cash advances, check cashing, money transfers and insurance, and it also will buy gold.
The business would make him rich, with his money eventually connecting him to the top political circles in Utah and nationally.
Food fight! • As he grew from rowdy to rich, Rawle has been described in ways that are sometimes hard to reconcile.
At his funeral, he was remembered for devoting a huge amount of time to his children and grandchildren, attending most of their school events and doing special things on their birthdays.
He also was described as generous with his money, from contributing to a cancer fund for the friend of a granddaughter to giving generously to charities.
But at Rawle's funeral, Young said Rawle believed "he was almost always right" and was inventive in the prolific use of swear words. His antics included dozens of food fights in restaurants over the years with Young and others, some ending with the participants physically escorted outside.
"They were dandy food fights," Young said. "They were knockdown, drag-out food fights."
But the rowdiness always resulted in a huge tip to the wait staff, he said.
In his later years, Rawle became Messianic about eating healthy and pure foods, with a particular dislike for wheat products. That led to harping on those he considered to have poor eating habits, but it also led him to help family, friends and employees improve their diets and health.
Consumer advocate? • Check City made Rawle wealthy, and the company and the industry have been controversial.
"Richard and his company were major players in the payday loan and check cashing business in the state of Utah and probably throughout the United States," said Brian Harling, of Park City, who met Rawle while trying to sell his own similar loan business.
Kip Cashmore, owner of Ogden-based USA Cash Services, said even though Rawle was a competitor, they became good friends while serving together on industry boards.
Rawle was a champion of industry best-practices standards aimed at protecting consumers from bad operators, said Cashmore, who has some 30 outlets in a handful of states.
"He was very oriented to making sure the consumer was protected," Cashmore said.
Others don't see Rawle or the industry in the same light.
"Formidable" industry • "He's the nicest guy in the world when you're making him money. However, if you don't make him money, you're gone," said Christian Warmsley, who identifies himself as a former Check City legal department employee who works as a private investigator. "He was a crude, crude businessman."
Check City charges 443 percent interest for a two-week payday loan, according to its website. The industry defends the high yearly rate, saying customers generally have no credit or poor credit.
A study by the Coalition of Religious Communities which often fights payday lenders because of what it says are predatory practices toward the poor found that collection suits by payday lenders swamp some courts. The group said the actions account for 79 percent of all small-claims cases at 4th District Court in Provo, near the headquarters of Check City.
In politics, "they do try a lot of tricks," said Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities who has often crossed swords with the payday loan industry and Check City.
For example, "Somebody bought my name and started a website that said how great payday lenders were. We traced it, and it was to a manager at Check City down in Orem," she said.
At the Utah Legislature, Hilton says payday lenders and Check City are "formidable. They have a lot of money. They hire a lot of lobbyists. I think the high I counted one year was 14 lobbyists on a retainer by payday lenders or the payday lending association," which at one time included now-Attorney General Swallow.
"They haven't won all the way along. But certainly every little scrap of regulation we have passed has been a knockdown, drag-out battle," she said.
Getting politicians' ears • Political influence was important to Rawle and to his industry.
Records show that Rawle or Check City or its corporate parent gave just under $50,000 to state-level politicians in Utah over the past five years. All of that went to Republican candidates or the state Republican Party.
Additionally, in the past decade Rawle personally gave $200,000 to federal-level candidates and parties, and mixed that up among Democrats and Republicans. All Utah members of Congress received donations; Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson received the most, $15,600. Rawle gave $4,000 over the years to Sen. Reid, D-Nev., the supposed target of the alleged bribery scheme.
Rawle bragged about his connections to Reid and how the senator helped him with payday loan issues, according to Johnson.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who represents Rawle's home base of Utah County, says Rawle took a low-key approach to lobbying.
"They are known Republican donors, and if you need to raise money they are somebody you went to and sat down with," he said.
Swallow registered as a lobbyist in 2007 and over the next several years represented Rawle companies. He was legal counsel for Rawle until December 2009 when he became chief deputy under then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. Johnson contributed heavily to Shurtleff's re-election campaign, for which Swallow was chief fundraiser.
The desire or need for influence might have led Rawle to respond when Swallow contacted Rawle in late 2010 to seek help on behalf of Johnson, whose I Works company was under federal investigation, according to Johnson.
Johnson has said he believed Rawle wanted to stay in the good graces of the future Utah attorney general.
Swallow and Rawle, in his declaration, have said Rawle got involved because he had experience through his industry trade association in government relations, and Young said Rawle might have seen an opportunity to help a fellow entrepreneur.
But emails appear to show that Swallow and Rawle believed the plan involved contact with someone close to Reid, although they do not provide details.
Three days before he died, Rawle signed an affidavit in which he denied any scheme aimed to bribe anyone, but he acknowledged that part of the money that came from Johnson and his I Works company and a company officer went to Swallow. The money was part of his fee for helping Johnson, the declaration said, and was paid to Swallow for work on a Nevada cement project.
Lymphoma diagnosis • Rawle was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2010, according to Young.
A blog put up by Rawle's daughter, Amber Callister, described a harrowing regimen of treatment during which a leg swelled to three times normal size. Rawle was in intense pain.
Chemotherapy and other treatments failed to stop the spread of the disease, and he died Dec. 8.
Reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.