The criminal case against Jeremy Johnson took a twist Friday, when a federal judge named Utah's most prominent defense attorney as his new lawyer and then warned the indicted St. George businessman to stop talking about his case to news reporters and on the Internet.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Warner appointed Ron Yengich to represent Johnson on a felony mail-fraud count and told the defendant he could not change court-appointed attorneys again.
Yengich has defended 1980s master forger and bomber Mark Hofmann; won a 1993 acquittal of Sam Kastanis, who was accused or murdering his wife and children; and, more recently, was on the defense team for Tim DeChristopher, the eco-activist sent to prison for monkey-wrenching a federal oil and gas lease auction.
Warner declined to rule on a motion by federal prosecutors to gag Johnson and halt his media campaign, which alleges government misconduct in this criminal case and a civil lawsuit.
Instead, the judge said that, because the government motion to muzzle Johnson's public commentary raises significant constitutional issues, both sides would be given the opportunity to file memorandums in the matter.
Oral arguments were scheduled for March 12.
Still, Warner warned Johnson and Yengich that court rules limit statements about the case outside the courtroom. Warner also told Johnson he was to have no contact with anyone who might be a witness in the criminal case or might be involved in the lawsuit he faces from the Federal Trade Commission.
Violations could land Johnson back in jail until a trial, Warner said. "I'm not a judge to be trifled with on this matter."
After Warner indicated he would not rule yet on the gag motion, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen asked him to impose a temporary order on Johnson because he had been recently giving more interviews to reporters.
"Mr. Johnson has been involved with a reckless campaign," Christensen said. "That campaign has intensified in the last couple of days."
At the start of Friday's hearing, Warner granted Nathan Crane's request to withdraw as Johnson's legal counsel. In his motion, Crane said he had serious differences with Johnson that meant he could not continue to represent him. He declined to elaborate.
Warner said he had met privately with Crane on Friday morning to talk about why the defense attorney wanted off the case and was convinced that it was the right decision.
Crane and Johnson have had a strained relationship over the defendant's media push, which included allegations of threats by the chief prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Ward.
Johnson has said he acted against Crane's wishes because the media offensive was necessary to defend family members, whom he claims Ward threatened to indict if Johnson did not plead guilty.
U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow has said no threats were made.
Johnson had been scheduled to plead guilty last month to two charges, but the deal blew up when he insisted on a public acknowledgment that prosecutor would not indict members of his family, friends or business associates, including new Utah Attorney General John Swallow.
Johnson has since accused Swallow of being part of a scheme to pay Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in hopes the powerful Nevada Democrat could thwart the 2010 FTC investigation into Johnson's I Works company.
Swallow and Reid have denied those allegations. Swallow says the money was for lobbying, not bribes.
Johnson's criminal indictment, like the FTC's civil suit,stems from the operation of his I Works.
The FTC case, still pending in federal court in Las Vegas, alleges the company did not properly disclose to customers that when they paid a minimal fee for a product such as a CD about getting government grants their credit and debit card would be billed monthly.