SALT LAKE CITY — While serving as then Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's lead fundraiser, current Attorney General John Swallow apparently became involved in plea negotiations for an accused scammer who initially received a sweetheart deal from state prosecutors.
A criminal defense attorney said Marc Sessions Jenson brought Swallow and Tim Lawson, a friend of Shurtleff's, to his office in early 2008. Jenson faced six felony counts for selling unregistered securities, securities fraud and pattern of unlawful activity.
"They were posturing about brokering a deal," said Greg Skordas, who along with his wife, Rebecca Hyde Skordas, represented Jenson in the criminal case. "He and Lawson were supposedly helping us broker things with the attorney general's office, and more importantly the attorney general."
Skordas said he doesn't remember the date of the meeting but it is was "while we were negotiating" a deal for Jenson with the attorney general's office. Those talks took place between January and April in 2008.
Swallow's involvement in the Jenson case is suggested in a document that is among thousands of pages Idaho businessman Grant Lee has collected in his and other court cases involving Jenson.
Swallow's name appears on a two-page summary of the criminal case against Jenson from the time charges were filed in August 2005 through his court approved second plea agreement May 29, 2008.
The last line lists Swallow (along with his cellphone number) as among four attorneys, including Skordas, who are "familiar with these matters." There is no date or author listed on the paper nor does it appear that it was filed in any court.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Scott Reed, said he's not aware of any meeting between Skordas, Swallow and Lawson, and none of them talked to him about it.
"It doesn't make sense to me," he said.
Swallow's attorney, Rod Snow, said Swallow attended a general meeting with others in an attorney's office where the Jenson case was discussed, but he doesn't recall whose office or where the gathering occurred. He also noted that Swallow was in private practice in 2008.
"If anyone was driving the bus on what the deal was going to be on Jenson it was going to be Shurtleff," Snow said. "I doubt John had anything to do with that at all."
Lawson did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Skordas said he understood Swallow was "working as a consultant for Shurtleff, like maybe working on his campaign or something" at the time.
Shurtleff was seeking re-election to a third term in 2008. Swallow was not employed at the attorney general's office then but was Shurtleff's chief fundraiser. Shurtleff would hire Swallow as his chief deputy in October 2009.
Skordas, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Shurtleff in 2004, said Shurtleff and Swallow were "always sort of around" Jenson's criminal case.
"(Jenson) maintained some communication with Swallow. He maintained communication with Shurtleff. I don't know if they were helping him. He certainly thought they were going to, but we didn't have many dealings with them," he said, adding those were things Jenson was doing on his own.
In a 2008 Deseret News story, Shurtleff said he felt "extraordinary pressure" from Jenson supporters to drop the charges against him. Meantime, Jenson's defense attorneys raised the possibility that Shurtleff filed the charges as a favor to a campaign donor who also was a party in the case.
Shurtleff oversaw an agreement in which Jenson took a plea in abeyance of no contest, a $15,000 fine and no jail time in early May 2008. A 3rd District judge rejected the deal as too lenient. Jenson entered a second plea in abeyance at the end of May in which he avoided jail but was ordered to pay $4.1 million in restitution.
Jenson is 22 months into a 10-year prison sentence for failing to pay the restitution.
Lee, the Idaho businessman, invested $1.1 million with Jenson in February 2009 for a federal program that would allow Chinese immigrants to get U.S. visas for their families if they invest in American businesses and meet other requirements. Lee never received the promised returns and sued Jenson. An Idaho judge ultimately entered a $1.3 million judgment against Jenson in Lee's case.
In interviews from prison, Jenson has made allegations of improper conduct against Shurtleff and Swallow, including spending two weekends in spring 2009 on his tab at the ritzy Newport Beach resort where he lived. Jenson claims Shurtleff tried to get him to give a businessman $2 million to end a financial dispute with another businessman.
Lee said he doesn't know much about the situation with Shurtleff and Swallow, but called Jenson a "crook" and was "irked" when Jenson claimed the two Utah officials were living it up on his dime.
"That was my money," Lee said.
In addition to his $1.1 million investment with Jenson, Lee said several other investors paid him another $4 million in early 2009.
Swallow, who said he met Jenson while coaching Jenson's nephew in youth baseball in 2006 or 2007, said all of his interactions with Jenson took place before he joined the attorney general's office, including the trip to Southern California.
"I was a private lawyer doing networking work, trying to build my business and doing other things that were perfectly legitimate," Swallow said Wednesday on KSL Newsradio's "Doug Wright Show" in response to a question about the trips.
When asked about Jenson in an interview last month, Swallow said: "As a private lawyer, you talk to people about legal representation. Even if you don't end up representing them, there's nothing wrong with that."
Swallow said he was never retained as Jenson's attorney and that he "walled" himself from the Jenson case two years ago.
"I didn't want, because of our prior interactions before I was a member of the office, to stand in the way of anything the office was doing to prosecute him fully," Swallow said.
Jenson currently faces more criminal charges. The attorney general's office in August 2011 charged him with communication fraud, money laundering and pattern of unlawful activity in connection with a failed $3.5 billion luxury ski/golf resort project on Mount Holly in Beaver County.
Swallow's dealings with indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson have also raised questions about the people he has associated with. Johnson claims Swallow helped broker a deal to bribe a U.S. senator to derail a federal investigation into his Internet marketing firm in 2010.
"I'm really being tried in the media on a concept of guilt by association with a person who hasn't even been convicted yet," Swallow said on Wright's show.
The attorney general also reiterated that the allegations against him are false and politically motivated.
"If I had anything to hide, I wouldn't be sitting here in this office right now. I would do the quote unquote honorable thing, if I had done something that wrong and I would leave my office," Swallow said. "Because I haven't, I'm not about to just walk away because of pressure."
Swallow and Shurtleff, who is now in private practice, are part of federal, state and county investigations into their conduct. The Utah House Republican caucus plans to discuss the impeachment process next week.
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