Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Tuesday he never had discussions about the legality of processing online-poker payments in 2010, when he met with representatives from the online-poker industry in a gathering arranged by a major campaign donor who was, at the time, processing poker payments.
"I wasn't clear about who was [processing poker payments] or where it was being done," Shurtleff said during a TribTalk online forum, "and it wasn't a question that was even asked of me."
Instead, he said the discussion revolved solely around whether online poker was a game of chance, which would be illegal under Utah law, or a game of skill.
In April 2010, Shurtleff met in his office with representatives of the Poker Players Alliance.
Businessman Jeremy Johnson had arranged the meeting through Shurtleff's chief deputy, John Swallow, who also attended.
Johnson, founder of I Works and a key Shurtleff campaign contributor, was a partner in Elite Debit, which was processing online-poker payments at the time through SunFirst Bank, a St. George institution in which Johnson was part owner.
On Tuesday, Shurtleff compared the gathering to an inquiry from an LDS Relief Society group as to whether raffling off quilts would violate Utah's ban on gambling.
But emails obtained through an open-records request indicate that some of the parties had discussions outside of that meeting about the legality of processing online-poker payments.
"The question here is: Is there a Utah law that prohibits the processing of poker transactions for persons in other states and countries aside from Utah?" Johnson wrote to Swallow in July after the April meeting.
Swallow, who succeeded Shurtleff in January as attorney general, responded: "Jeremy, I am not aware of any such law in Utah to prohibit what you are doing," adding that he would have a lawyer in the office investigate further.
From the email traffic, it appears that the attorney for the Interactive Gaming Council was looking for a favorable opinion from Shurtleff and potentially a friend-of-the-court brief for a lawsuit the council planned to file.
Ultimately, Shurtleff said, the alliance was told that Utah law was clear and does prohibit poker.
Elite Debit processed more than $200 million in online-poker payments before federal regulators shut down SunFirst Bank and arrested the bank's vice chairman, John Campos, and Johnson's partner, Chad Elie. Campos and Elie did time in prison related to poker. Johnson was not charged in the SunFirst case.
A former attorney for SunFirst, Scott Clark, told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that it was clear that processing poker payments was illegal and that, as a Utah law enforcement official, Shurtleff should have intervened.
Shurtleff said that, even if he knew SunFirst was processing poker payments, his office would not have handled the matter. Since playing poker in Utah is a misdemeanor, the case would have fallen to the Washington County attorney and, if money crossed state lines, federal agents.
Shurtleff said he was aware federal law enforcement was investigating the issue generally but didn't know specifically if SunFirst was involved.
"It doesn't matter if Swallow knew or anybody knew that processing was going on. I was aware the feds were involved," Shurtleff said. "They were already under federal jurisdictional investigation, so there was nothing to hide, nothing to cover up. They all faced federal scrutiny."
Johnson and his business associates gave Shurtleff more than $200,000 in contributions. Johnson also donated to charities that Shurtleff supported and flew Utah's then-attorney general to California on his private jet in 2009 to attend an event for one such group.
Johnson and his business associates face 86 criminal counts related to I Works. They have pleaded not guilty.