After already rejecting one plea bargain as too lenient, a judge warned Tuesday he will closely scrutinize a new deal in a fraud case where both the alleged swindler and victims accuse Attorney General Mark Shurtleff of unfairly meddling amid political pressure.
A trial for Marc Sessions Jenson on fraud and racketeering charges was scheduled to begin Tuesday, but was postponed as prosecutors and defense attorneys said they are close to a new plea bargain instead. Details of it have not yet been made public.
Third District Judge Robin Reese has already made the rare move to reject one deal in the case, and warned that he will ask attorneys at a hearing scheduled for Thursday to prove to him that the new deal adequately protects the community and reimburses victims. He said he will also allow alleged victims to examine it and comment.
Earlier this month as he rejected the first plea bargain, Reese noted that judges normally accept such deals almost automatically without seeking such explanations. But the case is anything but routine.
Attorneys for Jenson have questioned whether Shurtleff charged Jenson as a favor to a political donor. That donor, Ricke White, is among three people who say Jenson swindled them out of millions of dollars each in an investment scheme, lived in luxury on the proceeds, and then tried to get them to settle claims for small amounts.
On the other side, victims question whether Shurtleff caved in to pressure from supporters of Jenson as his office endorsed a plea deal so lenient that Reese rejected it.
Shurtleff denies any wrongdoing, and says his professional staff have made all key decisions in the case. But he acknowledges "extraordinary pressure" in the case, including being offered a bribe. Shurtleff said he reported that to the FBI, and offered no further details.
Other pressure, he said, included that Jenson supporters "hired people who are lobbyists who I've worked with or who I've known and am friends with, people who have raised money for me in the past, to try to get me to drop the charges. I've heard from mission presidents. I've heard from family members."
Shurtleff also said that Brent Hatch, the attorney son of Sen. Orrin Hatch who represents Jenson on civil matters, sent him "volumes of horrible stuff about our witnesses, our victims," arising out of civil suits brought against Jenson.
While Jenson is accused of stealing millions of dollars and is an ex-felon who served time in federal prison for bank fraud, the original plea deal called for only a $15,000 fine, no prison time and no specific restitution to victims (which is normally required in such cases).
The plea would also be held in abeyance for three years, meaning if Jenson committed no other crimes in that time, the conviction would disappear. Also, the plea deal specifically allowed Jenson to continue as a principal in a group seeking to convert the old Elk Meadows ski resort near Beaver into a private resort, and to raise money for it.
"If my grandson went in and took a T-shirt from Nordstrom, he would get reprimanded more than Jenson. That's why I went through the roof," said Morris K. Ebeling, who says he lost $2.5 million to Jenson. Protests by him and other alleged victims led Reese to review and reject that first plea bargain.
When Reese earlier asked Scott Reed, head of Shurtleff's criminal division, if that first deal truly served the interests of justice, Reed said in court, "This agreement does not serve all the interests of justice. It doesn't ... It serves some, and I think it serves them adequately, given my perspective of the parties as a whole."