Hero, scammer: the two sides of Jeremy Johnson
Generous, humble, compassionate, hero. Accused fraudster, thief, money launderer and admitted gambler.
When talk turns to St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson, two polar-opposite portraits emerge.
He's the kind, ever-caring guy who flies his own plane to Haiti to offer aid after a devastating earthquake. Or he's the mastermind behind a plethora of real companies and those of the shell variety that allegedly defrauded U.S. consumers out of $275 million.
Both are profiles of Johnson, but trying to reconcile them is mind twisting until you consider where the two images intersect. Both involve a great deal of money.
Johnson, it seems, is addicted to both the feel-good high of charity and the thrill of gambling.
Early years • He grew up in St. George, the son of Kerry and Barbara Johnson. The elder Johnson is owner of KV Electric Inc., a contracting business that through the years provided enough profits for the family to acquire a small plane and a houseboat on Lake Powell.
"He was always running lemonade stands or selling newspapers and making money, and giving it away," Kerry Johnson said of his son in an interview last year.
Jeremy Johnson graduated in 1994 from Dixie High School and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Independence, Mo. After a stint in college, he left to start a successful stucco business.
"He's always had a bit of an attention deficit syndrome because he's always thinking of a different way to do what people commonly do," Brent Miner, a St. George Realtor and friend of the Kerry Johnson family, said recently. "He was kind of a day dreamer at school."
In late 1999, Jeremy Johnson created the RumorSearch.com website, billed as a "personalized stock research firm, dedicated to the individual investor. Our main function is to research stocks and their rumors to verify their potential."
The company built up a list of 4,000 paid and unpaid subscribers who received emails and a "stock pick of the month."
In 2000, he also registered a company called I Works, which proclaimed in September 2001 on its website that it was "a complete source for innovative Web marketing and design."
I Works would branch out to sell a variety of services and products. And Johnson would found other companies for Web-related commerce. They all made him rich.
"Most giving guy" • Those in St. George who know Johnson, who through an attorney did not respond to a request for an interview for this story, say he has been generous with that money.
"Jeremy Johnson is the most giving guy I've ever known," said Boyd Livingston, a real estate agent who assisted Johnson in his Haiti relief effort.
After the deadly quake struck in January 2010, Johnson used his corporate jet to fly Utah doctors and supplies to Florida, where he purchased three helicopters to transport them to the border with the Dominican Republic. The aircraft also took 21 children from an orphanage to the capital of Port-au-Prince, where a chartered jet flew them to Florida.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who received more than $50,000 in political contributions in 2008 and 2009 from I Works and Johnson praised him as a "do-what-it-takes" kind of guy for his Haiti work.
Johnson's aid in southern Utah stretches back even longer.
Shannon Price, director of a group that assists people who leave the polygamous sect in southern Utah, said she has seen Johnson's giving side. He bought various items for boys from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, including Christmas party prizes, televisions and even cars, and he also helped get them into schools or jobs.
She said Johnson was "well-intended and very sincere, and I think he had some naivete about him." He was "very trusting."
Kirk Smith, who retired earlier this year as Washington County sheriff, said Johnson's helicopters with Johnson often as pilot were always available for law enforcement if needed to carry supplies and people, including during floods in December and in 2006.
"I think Jeremy just cares about the community," Smith said recently. "He wanted to be involved in anything he could."
Many in St. George said that far from flaunting his wealth, Johnson didn't drive a high-priced car or dress expensively.
"He looked just like any other farmer in town," said Miner. "He was a little overweight like all of us, so he'd keep his shirt tails out to be comfortable."
Citations and lawsuits • But another side of Johnson began emerging years ago when he started RumorSearch.com.
In 2001, he entered into a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in a case in which he touted a company called Far East Ventures Inc. as the "stock pick of the month" because of upcoming acquisitions that would boost its revenue to $750 million annually.
What Johnson did not disclose to potential investors, according to court documents, was that he had previously purchased stock in the company and was later given even more shares, which he sold for a profit of $277,000. The acquisitions never materialized.
Beginning in about 2003, I Works also received a string of administrative citations from the Utah Division of Consumer Affairs. It was cited for not providing sufficient information in connection with its sale for several thousand dollars of website, coaching and marketing products to consumers who wanted to start an online business.
In 2003, eBay sued over misuse of its name, saying Johnson and his I Works-related companies were offering services on how to make money on the online auction site with products called EBAY Solutions and EBAY Exposed.
Then, in December, the Federal Trade Commission sued Johnson, I Works and his others companies, as well as nine people who worked with him.
According to the lawsuit, I Works-related websites touted products for "make-money schemes," "stay-healthy programs" and information about government and private grants that purportedly could be used to pay personal expenses. But consumers who gave credit or debit card numbers for a minimal handling charge, usually $1.99, also could be charged a one-time fee of $189, then monthly fees of $59.95, according to the suit.
Hundreds of thousands of Johnson's customers sought refunds from credit card companies, claiming they were charged for unauthorized purchases, the suit said.
"Defendants' own customer service records indicate that defendants knew that as many as 1 million of the consumers they had billed were unaware they had been enrolled in monthly membership programs," according to the FTC.
When Visa and MasterCard fined I Works and related companies, and terminated their accounts, the complaint says Johnson and others then created dozens of shell companies to accept card payments in order to avoid detection.
Since 2006, Johnson's companies have taken in more than $350 million from sales but returned about $75 million to customers who complained to their credit or debit card companies, while keeping more than $275 million, according to court records. "At its height, the scheme was ensnaring 15,000 consumers per day," the FTC said.
Johnson has received more than $48 million in salary and other distributions since 2006, the FTC said.
Unauthorized charges • It is this side of Jeremy Johnson that many others know.
Nicky Miller, a teacher in Minden, Nev., lost her job a couple of years ago and decided to try to start a school for kids with learning disabilities. She came across an offer of a CD with grant information for only $2.29.
"As soon as I got it [and] saw the crap that was on it, it was like, 'What? You're helping me?' There was nothing that would point you in the right direction." Worse, she said, was that a few months later she noticed 11 unauthorized charges on her bank statement totalling $221.52.
Miller said she never saw mention on order forms that she was signing up for additional services.
Her story is similar to others listed as victims in court records. A Maryland man said that even before he could order anything online his debit card started getting charged for unknown services. When he made inquiries, he suspected the person at the other end was trying to elicit information that could be used to steal his identity.
The alleged victims tell of hour after hour of phone calls to try to get refunds. Only a few were successful.
Addicted to gambling • There's another aspect of Johnson's life that has emerged since the FTC lawsuit. He appears to be at the center of allegations that an official of a St. George bank illegally agreed to process payments for online poker companies. Johnson has admitted to the agency he was addicted to gambling and lost millions of dollars in Las Vegas, as well as online.
Johnson maintained an account at Full Tilt Poker, a website where members play online. He used the name ginette22, according to Samuel Jacobson, an FTC investigator.
Between April and October 2010, Johnson lost $1.53 million playing poker on Full Tilt, Jacobson said in court records.
Johnson also played at Wynn Las Vegas, where from June 2006 to January 2011, he lost $1.35 million. From February 2010 to January of this year, he played at the Wynn on 46 days, according to the FTC investigator. Johnson owed the Wynn $100,000 as of February. He also played at MGM casinos.
In total, Johnson lost $2.88 million from June 2006 to January 2011 at the Wynn and online. About $2.3 million was lost after Johnson had received a letter from the FTC saying he was required to preserve assets as a result of the agency's investigation.
In January, in a deposition given to government attorneys, Johnson said he probably started gambling in Las Vegas when he turned 21. He admitted he used money from I Works to gamble, and also provided funds to friends to play.
He told FTC attorney Collot Guerard that because his companies were shut down, "it's been a really good cure for me, my addiction."
"So you feel like you were addicted to gambling before?" Guerard asked, according to a transcript.
"I did use that word, didn't I? I guess so," Johnson replied.
"And so you lost money?"
"Yeah," Johnson said. "And you'd lose even more trying to win what you had before."
Couldn't say no • Johnson's charity has also had an obsessive quality to it.
"One of his biggest faults is not being able to say no to anyone," said family friend Miner, who described a group of hangers-on that seemed to surround him wherever he went.
In the January deposition, Johnson discussed a U-Haul truckload of silver bars that Johnson had purchased and recently sold to pay legal bills and business expenses.
Johnson said the silver bars and other precious metals were probably good assets because "it's like I'm not really that good with money. And so this is a pain in the butt to buy and to sell, and so it's a good way for me to save."
As spring unfolds, the IRS has a $2.6 million lien against one of Johnson's St. George homes, and he has reportedly moved to Costa Rica with his wife and two children, at least for now.