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Jury acquits John Swallow of all charges

SALT LAKE CITY — Tears streamed down John Swallow's face as a jury acquitted him of public corruption charges Thursday, ending perhaps the most unprecedented criminal case involving a politician in Utah history.

Swallow stood crying, his attorneys at moments patting him on the back, and held up his hands in apparent disbelief as 3rd District Judge Elizabeth Hruby-Mills repeated verdicts of not guilty to each of the eight felony and one misdemeanor counts against him.

Once the jury was dismissed, Swallow firmly hugged his attorneys, then turned to the gallery where his sobbing wife, Suzanne, and family members had clung to each other through the verdict.

"I'm speechless," the 54-year-old former Republican attorney general told reporters outside the courtroom.

"We're just so grateful and the system did work. I'm grateful for my lawyers. I'm grateful for my family and I'm grateful for our faith, and we’re just glad it’s over."

The five-man, three-woman jury found Swallow — who resigned under fire in 2013 — not guilty after 13 hours of deliberation Wednesday and Thursday.

One juror, East High School assistant principal Sandra Buendia, said that as jurors meticulously reviewed the evidence behind each charge, there simply wasn't sufficient evidence to convict Swallow beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Firmly convinced, that was our guiding principle," she said. "Based on the evidence that was presented, and basically all of the evidence, we weren't firmly convinced, and obviously unanimously we weren't firmly convinced of guilt."

A Utah jury cleared former Utah Attorney General John Swallow of all criminal charges Thursday, acquitting him of eight felonies and one misdemeanor charge accusing him of public corruption.

Posted by Deseret News on Thursday, March 2, 2017

Another juror, neurosurgeon Melissa Smith, said jurors discussed each count and each witness at length.

"I would say, without a doubt, almost every time, the evidence just wasn't there to support the allegations," Smith said.

"There seemed to be gaps," Buendia added.

'Shades of gray'

Salt Lake County District County Attorney Sim Gill issued a statement saying the case was complex and difficult.

"In some cases, jurors are asked to make simple assessments akin to black versus white. In other cases, however, jurors are asked to consider matters involving various shades of gray, where the right answer may be difficult to find but where prosecutors must nonetheless find their probable cause and follow the facts to wherever they lead. This case fell squarely into the latter category," he said.

During their deliberations, jurors sent four different questions to the judge. One of those questions led Swallow’s defense attorneys to call for a mistrial after learning the jury could have been deliberating a charge against the former attorney general that had been dismissed.

But after considering the motion for an hour, Hruby-Mills denied it.

Swallow's lead defense attorney, Scott Williams, said after the verdict that he was obviously glad the judge didn't grant a mistrial. Asked why, he replied, "Duh."

Williams said "who to ask peers (jurors) to believe" was a weakness the defense exploited in the state's case, referring to key prosecution witness Marc Sessions Jenson, a convicted felon.

The defense attorney also attacked the investigative methods used in the joint state-federal probe.

"This investigation appeared to us to be what was actually corruption, not what John Swallow was involved in," Williams said.

Prosecutors alleged that Swallow was part of a conspiracy with former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the late Tim Lawson to extort money and favors from Jenson, a wealthy businessman who had reached a plea-in-abeyance deal with the attorney general’s office. Jenson paid for the three men to visit the posh Pelican Hill resort in Southern California where he lived.

"It’s the power. It’s the greed. It is corruption. That’s what happened," deputy Salt Lake County district attorney Chou Chou Collins told jurors in closing arguments.

Shurtleff was the lead, Lawson the muscle and Swallow the money man to further their political and financial aspirations, prosecutors alleged.

Prosecutors also said Swallow illegally accepted the use of a houseboat, lied in a deposition and an FBI interview, omitted financial information from a candidate declaration form and had the state pay for a broken screen on his personal laptop. They also say he took a bribe through a campaign fundraiser held by a couple who had filed a mortgage foreclosure lawsuit against Bank of America in which the attorney general's office intervened.

Swallow faced nine charges: pattern of unlawful activity, accepting a gift, two counts of receiving or soliciting a bribe, and making false statements, all second-degree felonies; evidence tampering, misuse of public money and obstruction of justice, all third-degree felonies; and falsifying a government record, a class B misdemeanor.

Prosecutors dropped four charges against Swallow during the course of the trial, three of them because imprisoned businessman Jeremy Johnson — another key prosecution witness — invoked his Fifth Amendment right against incrimination and refused to testify.

Williams said he doesn't think the outcome would have been any different had Johnson testified. He called the one-time wealthy internet marketer the "biggest example" of corruption in the case.

"We were not afraid of Jeremy Johnson’s testimony," he said.

Johnson accused Swallow — in his first week as attorney general in 2013 — of helping to set up a $250,000 payment to enlist former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in an effort to get the Federal Trade Commission from investigating him and his internet company. Swallow maintained he only introduced Johnson to a friend who could lobby the senator.

'Grateful it's done'

The verdict followed four years of federal and state investigations, 2 ½ years of legal wrangling and nearly four weeks of court testimony.

Asked what life has been like during that time, Swallow said, "I really don’t think I'm in a position to talk about that right now. We're grateful. It’s been a trial, obviously, but we’re grateful it's done."

Swallow said he just wanted to relax with his family and enjoy a good night's sleep for the first time in a long time.

Williams said the defense’s momentum in the case started off strong and only got stronger.

“The case was shown for what it is, which is unfounded,” he said.

Williams used the state’s witnesses as well as his own to distance Swallow from Shurtleff and Lawson and to undercut Jenson’s two days of testimony.

Jenson is a liar and an unreliable witness, Williams said. He called him a "career fraudster with 4.1 million reasons to lie," referring to the $4.1 million Jenson owed as part of his 2008 plea agreement.

"I stand by my testimony given under oath in this trial," Jenson said late Thursday.

Swallow was elected attorney general in 2012 and served 11 months before resigning under fire in December 2013. He and Shurtleff were arrested on public corruption charges in July 2014. State prosecutors dropped the charges against Shurtleff last summer. Lawson also faced criminal charges but died before the case was resolved.


As they deliberated, jurors sent a note to the judge about 10:45 a.m. Thursday asking for clarification on which charges prosecutors dismissed over the course of the trial. In discussing the question, the judge and attorneys soon realized that the jury instructions did not list the dismissed counts accurately.

"Uh-oh," Collins said when the mistake was discovered.

Attorneys figured out that the jurors were incorrectly told that Count 4 for bribery had been dismissed. Actually, it was Count 6 for money laundering that was dropped.

Hruby-Mills ruled that a correction defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed on and sent to the jury took care of what she called a "clerical error."

Williams argued that there was no way to know whether the jury had been discussing the money laundering charge.

"That's the problem. Since it's hard to know, we believe it can't be remedied by just responding to their note, hence we have moved for a mistrial on that basis," he said.

Prosecutors dropped the money laundering and two other charges after Johnson refused to testify. Hruby-Mills allowed testimony from other witnesses on that charge.

Williams objected at the time, arguing that if Johnson didn't testify, that evidence would have to be "unadmitted," and "exactly that occurred. We were right."

The corrected instruction advised the jury that there was no evidence admitted on money laundering and that it should not consider anything they thought might be related to that count as it deliberated the other charges.

In addition to state and federal investigations, Swallow was the subject of a Utah House Special Investigative Committee probe in 2013. The panel of state legislators concluded that Swallow hung a veritable “for sale” sign on the attorney general’s office door.

Swallow "compromised the principles and integrity of the office to benefit himself and his political supporters. In so doing, Mr. Swallow breached the public’s trust and demeaned the offices he held,” according to the committee.

The committee turned over its 200-page report to law enforcement.

Swallow remains a defendant, along with Johnson, in a Federal Election Commission civil lawsuit, alleging he helped arrange illegal campaign contributions to Shurtleff, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Reid.