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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.

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.

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.

'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.

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.

Twitter: @TomHarveySltrib —

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