Government watchdogs are calling for an investigation of the Utah Transit Authority — and a development at a Draper FrontRunner station — after newly obtained documents revealed the involvement of an embattled businessman with ties to former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
The relationship between Shurtleff and developer Mark Robbins raises questions about whether the Utah attorney general’s office can be trusted to dig out the facts on the Draper deal, which has been the subject of an ongoing investigation in the office since 2010.
Emails, development proposals and budget documents provided by jailed businessman Marc Sessions Jenson show that Robbins, his former business partner, was involved in Whitewater VII’s development at the Draper FrontRunner station as late as 2010, seeking to round up $65 million in investments for the project.
That is about 20 months after Robbins supposedly parted ways with Whitewater consultant and then-UTA board member Terry Diehl.
The new questions arise due to Robbins’ relationship with Shurtleff, which includes the former attorney general offering $2 million to another businessman, Darl McBride, to take down a website critical of Robbins.
Shurtleff also included Robbins on a VIP guest list for his 2009 inauguration as a “major contributor” to the campaign — even though no donations from Robbins show up on Shurtleff’s financial-disclosure forms.
Shurtleff insists his dealings with Robbins posed no conflict with the investigation by the attorney general’s office.
“There is none. Zero,” Shurtleff said. “I never had a discussion with Robbins about anything on any dealings with UTA, Whitewater, FrontRunner. In fact, I didn’t even know he was involved in it until much later.”
A state legislative audit in 2010 examined Diehl’s role as a consultant in the Draper project — in which he made as much as $24 million — and recommended the attorney general investigate whether he violated state conflict-of-interest laws.
That probe is ongoing under Shurtleff’s handpicked successor, Attorney General John Swallow, who is the subject of five investigations into a litany of allegations of misconduct, including claims by Jenson that he and Shurtleff extorted gifts from him. Swallow’s office did not comment Wednesday.
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said emails provided to The Salt Lake Tribune revealing Robbins’ continued involvement raise questions about UTA’s business practices and whether the attorney general’s office can be trusted with the inquiry.
“No one expects the attorney general’s office to handle this matter well,” Frankel said. “They have demonstrated repeatedly to be protecting key individuals at UTA, including businessmen associated with the agency.”
Jenson, in an interview last week in the Davis County Jail, said Robbins wasn’t just trying to get him to invest in Draper, but also pitching developments at UTA stations in West Jordan and Clearfield. He said Robbins assured him they would get at least one, thanks to Diehl’s pull within UTA.
“Mark Robbins claimed it was an inside job,” Jenson said, “and Terry Diehl had taken care of it, and they were going to make a fortune.”
Diehl scoffed at the notion, adding that, as a board member, he had no say in UTA’s development decisions. “The board never got involved in any of that,” Diehl said. “I had nothing to do with it.”
UTA spokesman Remi Barron said the agency had no role in choosing the Draper developers.
“UTA is very strict in the [bidding] process, and no outside influence or discussion is permitted,” he said. “This is all in compliance with strict federal rules and policies.”
Jeff Vitek, whom Diehl turned Whitewater over to after Robbins left, did not return phone calls seeking an explanation of Robbins’ ties to the company. Vitek’s company was chosen in December 2010 to develop housing and retail around the West Jordan TRAX station.
Repeated attempts to contact Robbins were unsuccessful. But he told City Weekly that Jenson contacted him about the Draper project.
“Marc Jenson contacted me and said he had a billionaire in California looking to invest in good real-estate projects,” Robbins told the paper. “I told him about the project and sent him some general information and said if his guy was real, I would be happy to make an introduction to the new owner and see if we could negotiate a finder’s fee on any capital raised. He never produced anyone.”
Longtime government watchdog Claire Geddes said she’s not surprised Robbins remained involved in the Draper project, stressing that it’s time for someone other than the attorney general’s office to investigate.
“This whole thing has been a tawdry mess from the beginning, and I’m surprised the Legislature hasn’t stepped up on this,” she said. “This all explains the black hole to me at the attorney general’s office, why the Terry Diehl [investigation] has gone nowhere.”
Jenson and Robbins share a long and turbulent history. The two attempted in 2001 to buy the Mongoose bike company. The deal collapsed. Angry investors — whom Jenson said he repaid in full — complained they were scammed.
The attorney general’s office planned to make Robbins a star witness against Jenson in this matter.
Jenson eventually entered into a plea deal and relocated to Pelican Hill, a gated community in Newport Beach, Calif. It was months later, Jenson said, that he got a call from Robbins, who was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear at a series of court dates in a lawsuit alleging he took $2.3 million from a New Zealand company.
Jenson put up Robbins at Pelican Hill. There, Jenson said, Robbins tried to persuade him to invest in Draper.
“He said, ‘Listen, Marc. This is my deal. Terry Diehl, he’s on the board. He’s my partner,’ ” Jenson said Robbins told him. “’We’ve got three sites we’re up for. We’re going to get at least one. He’s going to make sure of it … and any money we put into it, we’ll get back 10 times.’”
In November 2010, about 20 months after Robbins had publicly parted ways with Whitewater, he sent Jenson emails showing a $65 million investment in Draper would bring a $463 million profit. Another said a $20 million investment in the West Jordan TRAX station, where UTA was paying for parking structures and most of the cost for roads and utilities, would reap a $61.6 million profit.
“These projects are an absolute home run,” Robbins wrote in an email.
These exchanges leave watchdogs wondering whether Robbins was ever actually out of the Whitewater deal, as well as whether Shurtleff’s relationship with Robbins may have compromised the state investigation.
Particularly troublesome, Geddes said, is Shurtleff’s 2009 meeting with McBride.
Shortly after Robbins fled, McBride, claiming he was owed $286,000, created a website, called Skyline Cowboy, aimed at locating Robbins so he could serve him with court papers. Instead, McBride got a call from Shurtleff who wanted to meet.
Over breakfast at Mimi’s Cafe, Shurtleff said McBride’s website was making it impossible for Robbins to do business and offered McBride $2 million to take it down — money Shurtleff said he thought he could get from Jenson, who was free on a plea deal at the time with attorney general’s office.
Jenson said Shurtleff later asked him for the money. Jenson refused.
Shurtleff also included Robbins on the VIP guest list for his 2009 inauguration.
The list, obtained through an open-records request, said Robbins was a “major contributor,” along with an array of other multilevel-marketing executives, lobbyists and leaders of the “online business opportunities” industry. Included was I Works founder Jeremy Johnson, Shurtleff’s leading donor who now faces criminal fraud charges and is at the center of the Swallow saga.
Robbins said in an earlier email that he never donated to Shurtleff. Shurtleff said he can only assume he made a mistake including Robbins.
“I don’t know why I would have had his name or put him there,” Shurtleff said. “There are a lot more people I could’ve put on there other than him.”
Pro-Swallow PAC ends
A political action committee created in 2011 to help John Swallow’s successful campaign for Utah attorney general has dissolved.
The Protect Utah PAC, led by longtime Swallow associate Brad Pelo, was a conduit for more than $100,000 in contributions. Most of the money went to a PAC run by his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. That PAC, in turn, gave considerable money to Swallow’s campaign.
The Protect Utah PAC did not raise any money in 2013 and filed its dissolution papers with the lieutenant governor’s office last week.