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John Swallow may have broken law by using Johnson’s houseboat

Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow helped raise money for Sen. Mike Lee during his 2010 campaign, including enlisting help from indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson.

By Robert Gehrke

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 30 2013 06:16PM
Updated May 20, 2013 10:01PM

Over doughnuts at Krispy Kreme in Orem, John Swallow deflected Jeremy Johnson’s suggestions that he had done anything improper in trying to help his friend derail a federal probe into his business dealings.

But one topic — Swallow’s use of Johnson’s massive, million-dollar Lake Powell houseboat — seemed to cause some anxiety for Utah’s then-chief deputy attorney general.

"Do they know about the houseboat?" Swallow asks in the April 30, 2012, meeting that Johnson secretly recorded. "Is there any paper trail on that?"

"There’s no paper trail on the houseboat. Nobody knows about it," Johnson assures him.

"There’s no email, there’s no ... " Swallow continues before Johnson interrupts.

"No emails on the thing," Johnson reiterates, "and, no, my wife doesn’t even know you were on there."

Swallow, then a candidate for Utah attorney general who assumed that office earlier this month, has acknowledged using the houseboat, "Peps I," a 75-foot-long floating mansion with numerous cabins, a home theater and a helipad — from which Johnson can be seen in a YouTube video taking off in his copter.

Similarly sized houseboats on Lake Powell rent for between $12,000 and $15,000 a week, according to listings for rentals from various concessionaires. At that rate, a weekend outing could cost more than $6,000.

The Federal Trade Commission obtained a judge’s order allowing both of Johnson’s houseboats to be seized and sold in an attempt to recoup some of the $275 million the commission said he took from customers.

David Irvine, an attorney and former state legislator with the watchdog group Utahns for Ethical Government, said Swallow’s use of the houseboat may have violated Utah law.

"I think it’s a dubious transaction," Irvine said.

State law bars officials from accepting gifts if the official has recently been or may reasonably be expected to be involved in action affecting the giver in the near future.

Under a law that Irvine sponsored when he was a legislator, the Utah attorney general’s office has sole authority to file class-action suits on behalf of citizens who have been defrauded. The state law parallels the federal one that the FTC cited when it sued Johnson in December 2010, a few months after Swallow used Johnson’s houseboat.

"I think it makes it very dicey," Irvine said, "for Swallow to say he was not in a position where he might have to deal, or could deal on behalf of Utahns defrauded in an action against that company."

The law provides a potential "out" for officials, provided they disclose the gift, but Swallow filed no such disclosure, according to an open-records request filed by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Swallow has acknowledged using the houseboat for his family trip in 2010 and said he saw no harm in doing so.

"At the time I considered Mr. Johnson a friend, and I did not view spending one day on a friend’s boat as a gift," Swallow said, "especially since we brought our own equipment, including WaveRunners, and paid for our own food, fuel and other necessities."

Tom Harvey contributed to this story.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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