Jeremy Johnson battles feds on many online fronts
Call it Johnson's War with Jeremy Johnson as commander in chief.
The indicted and sued St. George businessman is waging high-tech, low-cost battles against his federal tormentors through YouTube videos, websites, Facebook, Twitter, a blog and interviews with the mainstream media.
He appears to be taking no prisoners:
• Johnson's YouTube videos accuse federal prosecutors of threatening to indict his family if he doesn't plead guilty in his criminal case in which he asserts his innocence.
• He lobs witness-tampering allegations on YouTube at a Federal Trade Commission attorney.
• He indicts the agency's actions on his EvilFTC.com website, which he promotes on Twitter.
• On Facebook, an "[Unofficial Fan Page] United States Attorney for the District of Utah" draws negative comments about prosecutors.
• And Johnson levels similar accusations in interviews with reporters.
His has been a months-long assault, but now federal prosecutors in Utah are fed up and trying to halt it. They've asked a federal judge in Salt Lake City to order Johnson to stop making statements to the news media and to dismantle his online offensive.
This type of effort from a defendant is unusual, but with the rise of the Internet and social media people such as Johnson now have a variety of tools at their fingertips to fight such a guerrilla war against their persecutors.
"Typically, the government is so much more powerful and has so much more in terms of resources that the voices of those who are the target of investigations are never really heard," said former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman. "Maybe social media changes that."
The FTC sued Johnson and his I Works company in 2010, alleging it illegally charged consumers' credit and debit cards monthly fees after luring them with offers of products for small fees. It also alleges Johnson created dozens of shell companies to continue to charge consumers after Visa and MasterCard threatened to cut off I Works because too many customers were seeking chargebacks.
In June 2011, the feds arrested Johnson on a felony mail fraud charge. He spent 96 days in jail before his release on $2.8 million bail.
In that criminal case, Johnson's media campaign apparently orchestrated with a cadre of helpers has particularly targeted Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Ward, the lead prosecutor, accusing him of threatening to indict Johnson's family, friends and former company officials if the defendant did not plead guilty.
Johnson said in a Jan. 10 interview that he had attended a meeting in September at the U.S. Attorney's Office in which Ward and Internal Revenue Service Special Agent Jamie Hipwell gave a PowerPoint presentation that the embattled businessman said showed some of those the government would charge with crimes if he did not admit guilt.
Johnson said he told the two that he would plead guilty to "anything you want. I'll do whatever it takes to stop you from hurting people I care about. And [Ward] pipes up and says, 'Well, you're going to have to tell the judge you did all this.' I said, 'OK, I'll say whatever you put on a piece of paper, I'll tell him I did it.' "
At a court hearing the next day, however, the plea agreement fell through when the government declined to bow to Johnson's demands that he get a public guarantee that family, friends and associates including new Utah Attorney General John Swallow not be prosecuted if Johnson pleaded guilty.
After the Jan. 11 hearing, in the snow outside the federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow denied any threats.
Johnson or an ally then posted a YouTube video purporting to offer evidence of such a threat.
On the video and in a blog, Johnson has distributed a slide from a PowerPoint presentation Ward allegedly gave Johnson and his then-attorney. The slide is titled "CONSPIRACY" and on it are two lists of people, one under the heading "Bank Fraud" and one under "Money Laundering." Names on the second include those of Johnson's wife, Sharla, and his parents, Kerry and Barbara Johnson.
In the YouTube video, a slide appears, alleging "Brent Ward threatens to arrest his family and friends unless he tells a federal judge he's guilty."
It shows Barlow denying any threats, with Ward standing behind him, a cartoon caption appended to his image, saying, "Um ... I may have made a threat or two" as an animated figure narrates the scene.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined further comment on Johnson's campaign. Johnson, under a recent warning from a federal judge to keep silent, also declined comment, as did his new court-appointed attorney, Ron Yengich.
Tolman, from his perch now as a defense attorney in private practice, conceded government officials do sometimes abuse their powers.
"With Jeremy Johnson, that's not saying what he is saying is accurate or needs to be given credibility," Tolman said. "But, at this point, I think somebody does need to look at some of these issues. There are some unusual circumstances surrounding this case. There appears to be unusual decisions."
Because the feds seized all the assets of I Works and Johnson, he says he has no funds to hire a lawyer in the FTC lawsuit. So he has been representing himself in that case and also turned to the Internet, social media and interviews to attack the FTC and the agency's lead attorney, Collot Guerard.
Johnson or an ally created a website, collotguerard.com, which has since been removed, seeking information about wrongdoing by the FTC lawyer. He issued a news release and posted on EvilFTC.com information and exchanges with the agency about anti-Mormon remarks Guerard allegedly made to Johnson when he had appeared for a deposition.
Guerard referred to Johnson as a member of the "Mormon Mafia," according to the EvilFTC website, and said she was a "real Christian" who goes to church with former Mormons who also are now "real Christians."
An FTC official, in an email exchange on the website, called the anti-Mormon allegations defamatory and false and asked that they be removed.
Johnson put up another website soliciting "victims" of California-based Robb Evans & Associates, a law firm appointed by the court as receiver over I Works. On EvilFTC.com and in YouTube videos, he alsohas video of two people who gave testimony against I Works but now say they were pressured to do so and that their statements were altered.
The FTC declined comment. But, in December 2011, the agency sought an emergency order from the Las Vegas judge hearing Johnson's FTC case, asking him to order the offending websites be taken down and that the defendant and his allies stop using Internet resources that imply affiliation with the agency.
"The use or potential use by Johnson and others acting in concert with him of domains, websites, and emails with names of FTC attorneys is improper and misleading," the agency said, "in the same manner that Johnson's use of firstname.lastname@example.org was improper and misleading."
Judge Robert Hunt directed the FTC to work with Johnson to remove certain items implying connections to the agency or its attorneys. He also ordered him to stop using email addresses that implied FTC affiliation and that he disable the website using the name of the receiver.
Now Johnson's antics have rankled Salt Lake City's federal prosecutors, who have asked a federal court to silence his online campaign and his talks with reporters.
In its motion, the U.S. Attorney's Office said that "while defendant has the right to his day in court, he is not entitled to litigate his case in the media (print, broadcast or social) by means of false accusation and innuendo."
A hearing is set for March 12, though U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Warner warned Johnson last week that he needed to cease furtherpublic comment until the court decides on the request for a gag order.
Michael P. O'Brien, an attorney for TheSalt Lake Tribune, said courts have issued such orders in criminal cases "to protect the integrity of the criminal court system and the fairness of a jury trial."
"Although the courts have ruled in various ways, it is clear that gag orders restrict the free flow of information to the public," O'Brien wrote in an email. "Ultimately, I think the use of such tools can undermine the public confidence that better exists with an open and transparent court system."
For now, Johnson's online war continues just a click away.
The Swallow case
Indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson has alleged that Utah's new attorney general, John Swallow, helped broker payoffs to enlist the aid of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in derailing a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Johnson's I Works business.
Swallow and Reid have vehemently denied the allegations. The U.S. Attorney's Office has said it is investigating.