A Republican state senator met with federal agents last year to express concerns that Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff might be declining to prosecute companies in exchange for big campaign contributions.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, told representatives of the IRS, FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office that he suspected Shurtleff was "selling fire insurance" by not prosecuting his big donors.
"Urquhart believes that is the same as buying off a judge," a federal IRS agent wrote in a memo about the Aug. 11, 2009, meeting in St. George. The document surfaced after being filed Friday in federal court by Rick Koerber, a Utah County businessman under federal indictment for allegedly running a multimillion dollar Ponzi scheme.
Urquhart, who had previously spoken with then-U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman on the subject, downplayed the meeting Monday.
"All I had was some concerns that [Shurtleff] had been getting a lot of money from suspect entities. Is he the appropriate person to determine whether they should be prosecuted?" Urquhart asked.
Shurtleff said the Koerber filing was the first he'd heard of Urquhart's meeting with the federal authorities, although they had a frank discussion last year about Urquhart's suspicion.
'Irresponsible' • "I'm outraged about that," the attorney general said Monday. "I think it's unethical what he did. I think it's irresponsible. I don't have a problem with someone, whoever they are, who believes they have evidence to take it to investigative authorities, but to go to investigators, take up their time â¦ and go spill a bunch of innuendo with no basis â¦ I think that is out of line, and I think that says a lot about him."
Shurtleff also said Urquhart had a conflict because his wife was being paid by Sen. Bob Bennett's re-election campaign at the time of the meeting. Shurtleff was considering a challenge to Bennett when the meeting occurred.
There was no follow-up from the federal investigators, Shurtleff said.
At one point, amid rumors there might be an investigation of his fundraising, he asked several federal officials if they were investigating him and was told they were not.
Urquhart acknowledged Monday he had nothing beyond suspicions about the fundraising.
"I used to be a big Shurt-leff supporter, but I started looking into where he gets his funds and what amounts, and I got significantly turned off and concerned about it," Urquhart said.
Shurtleff has raised about $200,000 from companies that were, at one time or another, under investigation by the state.
The meeting between Urquhart and federal agents came to light as part of Koerber's efforts to have U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart recuse himself from his case because of his friendship and conversations with state Commerce Executive Director Francine Giani.
Koerber was investigated by federal agents at the urging of Giani, who approached them after she was angered by the refusal of Shurtleff's office to file a civil lawsuit.
Vendetta? • In the newly-filed pleadings, Koerber's attorney, Marcus Mumford, argues that Koerber was the target of a personal vendetta by Giani.
The filing said that after the Attorney General's Office declined to file a lawsuit against Koerber, a piqued Giani "made statements to suggest that she could use her connections at the 'federal level' to see 'what a federal judge had to say about' the Utah attorney general 'being in [Koerber's] back pocket.' "
Giani strenuously denied Monday she had made that statement or that she had ever talked to Stewart about the case. She said she was the one who approached the federal officials and informed them about her occasional meetings with Stewart, a former director of the Department of Commerce.
Stewart, who had not presided over any hearings or made major decisions regarding Koerber, recused himself from hearing the case Friday after Koerber filed the motion and accompanying documents.
The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, a former federal prosecutor, who recused herself on Monday. Federal Judge Clark Waddoups drew the case after Campbell withdrew.
A call to Stewart's office seeking comment was not returned.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on whether the Justice Department had investigated Urquhart's suspicions. Tolman, now a private attorney, did not return a phone call seeking information.
Shurtleff and Giani sparred after Koerber was indicted in May of 2009 for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme in which about half of the $100 million he raised allegedly was used to pay off investors in what was supposed to be a lucrative real estate investment operation.
Shurtleff said the department had not presented sufficient evidence to file a state legal action, but Giani's office confirmed that it had passed over 20 boxes of materials.