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Ex-deputy AG sues Salt Lake County DA office over arrest during John Swallow trial

Kirk Torgensen, a former chief deputy Utah attorney general, testifies on the fourth day of former Utah Attorney General John Swallow's public corruption trial at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Kirk Torgensen, a former chief deputy Utah attorney general, testifies on the fourth day of former Utah Attorney General John Swallow's public corruption trial at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A former chief deputy Utah attorney general says Salt Lake County prosecutors violated his civil rights when they had him thrown in jail, claiming he told them he wouldn't be available to testify in the John Swallow trial last year.

Kirk Torgensen, who now lives in Florida, contends in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday that he cooperated fully with the criminal investigations into his former bosses, ex-attorneys general Swallow and Mark Shurtleff.

Torgensen said Thursday that the "biggest shock of my life" is the how the system he worked in for over 25 years was used to violate his constitutional rights and dignity in such a "blatantly illegal and unethical way."

"Obviously, the DA office was not concerned by what the law stated and chose to throw an innocent person in jail for their own warped reasons," he said in an email. "There were no facts whatsoever to warrant anything they did. It saddens me that the system I dedicated my career to could be used in such (an) evil way."

The lawsuit names Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill; deputy district attorneys Chou Chou Collins, Fred Burmester and Sam Sutton; and investigator Cortney Nelson as defendants. Collins and Burmester were the lead prosecutors in the public corruption case against Swallow.

Gill said he was unaware of the lawsuit Thursday. He said his office would respond after it has a chance to see the complaint.

When Torgensen came to Utah in January 2017 for his mother's funeral, Collins contacted him to talk about calling him as a witness at Swallow's trial in February.

Torgensen was surprised because he had not heard from prosecutors for more than a year and didn't know the trial date, according to the lawsuit. He explained he had a long-planned, six-week international trip scheduled during that time but would do provide his testimony "one way or another," including flying home from vacation if the county would pay for it.

A day later, he was served with a subpoena to appear at the trial, which Torgensen said he fully intended to comply with, the lawsuit says. The next day, the Swallow trial judge issued a material witness warrant and Torgensen was arrested at the home of a friend, assistant Utah attorney general Scott Reed.

"I was arrested by seven armed FBI agents just hours after burying my mother," Torgensen said.

Torgensen believes that his arrest was "intended to intimidate and pressure him to testify in a manner consistent with the prosecution's view of the case," according to the lawsuit.

He was held in the Salt Lake County Jail on $100,000 bail until the judge released him after a hastily called hearing the day after his arrest. She also ordered him to be present to testify for three days in February and that the state pay his travel costs from Florida.

The lawsuit says Torgensen was treated like a "common criminal, including wearing an orange jail jumpsuit" and being handcuffed and shackled during his arrest and incarceration.

"He was treated with disrespect by jail personnel, including being cross-checked with a baton while being told to "face the (expletive) wall," according to the lawsuit.

Torgensen ultimately testified at the trial for less than an hour, and mostly on cross-examination by Swallow's defense lawyer.

"After all of this trouble and effort, the prosecution elicited no inculpatory evidence during Torgensen's direct examination," the lawsuit says.

A jury acquitted Swallow on all charges. Prosecutors dropped all charges against Shurtleff.

Torgensen suffered humiliation, depression requiring medical attention, and physical pain including injury to his Achilles tendon from being shackled, according to the lawsuit.

"While officials from the DA's office have conceded error in obtaining the material witness arrest warrant for Torgensen, the DA's office has failed to reimburse Torgensen for his attorney's fees or compensate him for the economic and non-economic damages caused by these unlawful and traumatic events," the lawsuit says.