At times, he’s practically weeping, barely able to speak. He declares his children no longer have a father because he’s going to prison for a long time.
But embattled businessman Jeremy Johnson also repeatedly proclaims his innocence and tells his friend that he plans to plead guilty to federal chargesonly to protect his family from the threats of rogue prosecutors.
After an hour of back-and-forth — talk of courtroom strategy and backroom dealings, with raw emotions running between calm and gloom — the friend says:
“<a href=”http://local.sltrib.com/charts/jj/Johnson16.mp3”>Now you’re scaring me. I’m on a national suicide prevention board. You sound to me like you’re about ready to end it. Look at me and tell me you’re not going to do that.</a>”
The concerned friend: then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
The background • Johnson secretly recorded the Oct. 8, 2012, meeting in the attorney general’s office but lied to Shurtleff when asked if he was doing so.
The two had developed a relationship — first as donor and politician, and then as friends — as Johnson amassed millions of dollars from his I Works Internet marketing company. But his enterprise attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which sued Johnson in late 2010 for allegedly violating consumer-protection laws, with a criminal indictment following about six months later.
Johnson maintains the FTC action was illegitimate and that the criminal charge resulted from collusion between attorneys for that agency and federal prosecutors in Utah who were recruited to force Johnson into a settlement.
By the time of the meeting in Shurtleff’s office, Johnson had agreed to plead guilty to two charges — bank fraud and money laundering — and was facing up to 11 years behind bars.
Fall guy • Johnson begins the session by playing a video intended to show that he had been railroaded by prosecutors. Part of the reason for the meeting was to seek permission for a segment in which Shurtleff appeared (which the attorney general granted).
The recording reveals strong emotions as Johnson, seemingly in tears, repeatedly proclaims his innocence, decries alleged threats by the feds and insists he plans to plead guilty to save his family, business associates and even John Swallow, who would succeed Shurtleff as attorney general.
Johnson explains that Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Ward, the lead prosecutor at the time, had warned him that the government would indict those around Johnson if he did not accept the plea deal.
“<a href=”http://local.sltrib.com/charts/jj/Johnson1.mp3”>So I went in and talked to him,” Johnson tells Shurtleff. “I told them beforehand, ‘I’ll plead guilty to whatever you want. Just leave my family and friends out of it.’</a>”
Shurtleff notes at the start of the recording, a copy of which The Salt Lake Tribune has obtained, that he is meeting with Johnson as a friend, not as an attorney. (Shurtleff declined to comment for this story on advice of his attorneys.)
Nonetheless, Shurtleff outlinesa strategy in which Johnson would accept the plea agreementbut then go into court and say he had done so only because of prosecutors’ threats. That would put the matter squarely before U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, Shurtleff says, and make it public.
Still, Johnson insists the guilty plea is the only way to save his family and others.
Shurtleff remains skeptical, warning Johnson that, by admitting guilt, he would be labeled a criminal and any credibility he had would be lost.
“<a href=”http://local.sltrib.com/charts/jj/Johnson9.mp3”>So, Jeremy, tell me,” Shurtleff says, “when you said your ultimate goal is you don’t want them to do this to anyone else (‘That’s it,’ Johnson interjects.), by pleading guilty, how do you stop them in the future? Because they win; their tactics worked.</a>”
At that point, Johnson brings up a 2003 movie titled “The Life of David Gale,” starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet.
That film, Johnson explains, involves an anti-death-penalty activist in Texas who apparently set up his own murder conviction and is executed only to have a video recording surface that proves his innocence and unmasks the failings of the justice system.
Shurtleff tells Johnson what he intends to do is “very noble” but points out “it’s not entirely selfless because your kids don’t get their daddy.”
“They don’t have a daddy anymore,” an emotional Johnson says.
Protecting Swallow? • Among those people Johnson professes he wants to save is Swallow, Shurtleff’s then-chief deputy and soon-to-be-elected attorney general. Earlier in the year, Johnson and Swallow had their now-infamous meeting at Orem’s Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, where the St. George businessman pressed Swallow for a return of monies paid in a failed bid to stall the FTC probe of his company.
In his recording of Shurtleff — excerpts of which appeared in a supplemental report to a Utah House investigation of Swallow — Johnson asks Shurtleff to convey to Swallow that Johnson is not out to get him.
“<a href=”http://local.sltrib.com/charts/jj/Johnson13.mp3”>For some reason John thinks I’m against him, and I’m not,” Johnson says. “If you talk to him, I hope you relay that I’ll absolutely do nothing to harm him.</a>”
Shurtleff replies that he worries Swallow will be indicted after he is elected and urges Johnson to “tell me what John did” as part of the effort to halt the FTC investigation and which would became the subject of an FBIprobe.
“You know how it got started is they found emails from John to me,” Johnson tells Shurtleff.
“This whole thing started against John?” Shurtleff asks.
“This indictment thing that you keep hearing about,” Johnson says. “So they wanted me to give them the whole situation with these emails because what John puts in emails is extremely incriminating.”
The Utah House investigation concluded that Swallow had deleted thousands of emails and fabricated other documents after the April 30, 2012, Krispy Kreme meeting with Johnson.
Resignation & reassurance • Toward the end of his 75-minute meeting with Shurtleff, Johnson returns to his reasons for pleading guilty as the only way he can guarantee prosecutors won’t go after his family and others.
He seems resigned to his fate, while saying he would consider Shurtleff’s advice.
“<a href=”http://local.sltrib.com/charts/jj/Johnson15.mp3”>Here’s another thing,” Johnson says. “I’ve lived an extraordinary life. And ... people in their lives have all kinds of things they have to deal with, these struggles, the health problems they have , unruly kids (Shurtleff interjects, ‘You’re talking about me right now’) financial issues — whatever it is, right? Everyone has things to deal with, and this is my thing. I have to do the right thing.</a>”
Shurtleff then asks if Johnson is contemplating ending his life. Johnson eventually says, “I’m not going to hurt myself.” The encounter ends with Shurtleff telling his friend he will talk to U.S. attorney David Barlow about Johnson’s case — “<a href=”http://local.sltrib.com/charts/jj/Johnson17.mp3”>without him thinking I’m trying to influence his office.</a>”
Swallow became attorney general Jan. 7. That same week Johnson’s plea deal unraveled after he essentially followed the script Shurtleff had spelled out. Johnson then went public with allegations about Swallow’s involvement in the deal to combat the FTC on Jan. 12.
Allegations — against Shurtleff and Swallow — emerged from others. Scandal ensued. Investigations began. Damning reports came forth. And Swallow resigned less than a year later.
Reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.