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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeremy Johnson leaves the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on March 12, 2013, after a hearing.
Utah judge says he’ll OK Jeremy Johnson gag order
Hearing » Defense attorneys, prosecutors to try to agree on how to restrict comments in high-profile case.
First Published Mar 12 2013 06:42 pm • Last Updated May 20 2013 10:17 pm

A judge has asked prosecutors and attorneys for Jeremy Johnson in a criminal case alleging bank fraud and money laundering to come up with a plan to rein in the St. George businessman’s media and social network campaign against the government.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Warner said at a hearing Tuesday he was willing to sign an order placing limits on what Johnson and other defendants can say about the case but wanted it narrowly drawn so it doesn’t conflict with the right to free speech.

At a glance

Johnson partner faces drug charges

A business partner, friend and neighbor of St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson has been ordered detained and will be sent to Florida to answer charges related to the alleged transport of 100 kilos or more of marijuana.

Jason T. Vowell decided not to contest his detention in Utah at a hearing Monday in St. George and will be transported to answer the charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and aiding and abetting in its possession.

Vowell and another St. George businessman, Chad Christopher Sunyich, were arrested Feb. 28 in St. George on a warrant out of Tampa.

Sunyich sought release from jail but Magistrate Judge Robert T. Braithwaite ordered him detained. He also will be transported to Tampa to answer the charges, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah.

The government had argued that Sunyich was a flight risk.

In January, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration seized a twin-engine plane at the St. George airport and confiscated $166,228 in cash.

A third suspect in the case was arrested in Florida but a judge there granted his release from jail on $50,000 bail.

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"I think both sides can see that because of the nature of this case it’s probably appropriate to have some type of order," Warner said.

Federal prosecutors in January asked Warner to impose a gag order on Johnson in light of a campaign in which he and others attacked prosecutors who at the time were pursuing him on a single criminal mail fraud charge. They said Johnson’s effort presented a "substantial likelihood" of interfering with a fair trial.

Since then, a new indictment spelled out 86 new charges against Johnson and four former employees of his Internet sales company, I Works.

The Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, citing free speech and other constitutional concerns, filed a brief with the court that argued the government had not provided evidence that a gag order was necessary in this case.

But Warner said he was inclined to grant the government’s request in some form after Johnson’s attorneys agreed an order was proper but were concerned it would be overly broad. They said they feared Johnson could be blamed for the comments or information posted online by others.

Johnson attorney Earl Xaiz said he also was worried about how a gag order might affect Johnson’s ability to defend himself in a civil lawsuit brought against him and others by the Federal Trade Commission. Johnson is representing himself in that case because he says he has no money to hire attorneys after the FTC convinced a federal judge in Las Vegas to seize all his assets.

Xaiz said his concerns stem from a recent deposition to the FTC during which Johnson repeatedly over the course of hours evoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions.

After that, FTC attorneys said they did not recognize Johnson’s right to decline to answer questions and would seek a judge’s order to force him to do so, Xaiz told Warner.

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Warner expressed skepticism about the FTC position, inviting the agency’s attorney to take that request to a federal judge.

"I wish them well," Warner said. "I think they will find that’s a tough row to hoe."

The Utah judge gave the attorneys until April 17 to come up with a plan, saying he did not think there was a need to hurry given that Johnson had adhered to his previous admonition to curb his media campaign.

Johnson and the four others are accused of conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering for allegedly creating straw companies to obtain bank accounts for credit and debit card processing after banks began to cut off I Works because too many customers were demanding charges be reversed. Johnson has said he was the victim of fraud by other companies and that no bank fraud was committed.


Twitter: TomHarveySltrib

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