Lawson charges trigger big question: Who's next?
Tim Lawson, the first person charged in a sweeping investigation of alleged misconduct by two former Utah attorneys general, remained behind bars Friday as political observers buzzed about what may lie ahead.
Officers transported Lawson on Friday afternoon from the Utah County jail, where he had been since his arrest Thursday, to the Salt Lake County jail. He is being held on $250,000 bail and is scheduled to make his first appearance before a judge in 3rd District Court on Wednesday.
Prosecutors in Salt Lake and Davis counties who have been investigating former Attorney General John Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff hit Lawson with six felony counts Thursday, accusing the 49-year-old Provo man of intimidating witnesses, evading taxes, obstructing justice and participating in a pattern of unlawful conduct.
If convicted, the combined charges could carry a prison sentence of up to 50 years.
The arrest of Lawson a friend, fundraiser and often-described "fixer" for Shurtleff may serve as a harbinger of things to come.
"It should send shock waves up the spine of Shurtleff and Swallow," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "There's a danger whenever you get someone with not much to lose and a lot to gain by giving up a bigger fish. It would seem this is the opening act."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill would say Thursday only that investigators are still hard at work and wouldn't comment on other potential charges.
"We are in the middle of the investigation," Gill said. "This is still open and active and we are not close to finishing it up yet."
At the same time, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said the nature of the unlawful-activity charge "means Mr. Lawson wasn't acting alone or in a vacuum," but added that nobody else has been charged.
Shima Baradaran, who teaches criminal law at the U., said that, while she would just be speculating, based on the information in the Lawson case, it seems likely that additional parties could face charges in the future.
Additionally, she said, Lawson may have broken federal statutes specifically the tax violations and theunlawful-conduct count. "There may be conspiracy charges for all those involved if the government can prove an agreement and plan among the participants as well."
Damon Cann, a political scientist at Utah State University, said it's not uncommon for prosecutors to pick low-hanging targets and try to get them to give up information on higher-level individuals.
"I don't think we've seen the end," he said. "If anything, I might suspect that arresting Lawson may signal that they think there's much more to go after here. â¦ This may just be the tip of the iceberg and things may get more intense."
The heat may be turned up even more next week. A House investigative committee is scheduled to spend two days presenting information that its team compiled over a four-month probe into Swallow's actions. The inquiry cost Utah taxpayers $2.3 million before being cut short by Swallow's resignation last week.
A lawyer for a jailed Marc Sessions Jenson who allegedly paid Lawson $120,000 over 11 months in 2009 and had Lawson, Shurtleff and Swallow stay at his luxurious Southern California villa (all part of what Jenson called a "shakedown") welcomed the charges against Lawson.
"This confirms how Shurtleff and Swallow directed blackmail payments from Mr. Jenson and benefited from those payments," said attorney Marcus Mumford. "With this now established with the help of the FBI and Utah investigators, we look forward to working with the attorney general's office to obtain Mr. Jenson's immediate release."
On Friday, Mumford took the first steps in that direction. He asked the office to seek his client's release, citing an abuse of the office's authority, in a move that would free Jenson while he fights felony charges.
Jenson is currently in protective custody in the Davis County Jail and has been incarcerated since August 2011 on securities violations.
"We spelled out the basis and grounds for [his release]," Mumford said, "specifically referencing the sworn statement by the FBI and investigators from the Utah Department of Public Safety that was filed in the Tim Lawson case and other evidence we have previously submitted to the court."
Darl McBride, who according to documents was threatened with physical harm by Lawson when McBride criticized another businessman, also praised prosecutors' actions.
"Kudos to the investigators on this case for staying with it," McBride said. "[It] looks like the roundup has just begun."
In emails released by the attorney general's office under an open-records request, Lawson contacted Shurtleff frequently about fundraising meetings for the attorney general. The emails show Lawson helped bring tens of thousands of dollars to Shurtleff's political campaigns.
Lawson also spoke in the emails of his friendship with Gov. Gary Herbert. On Friday, Herbert's office distanced the governor from Lawson.
"He knows [Lawson] but hasn't talked to him in years," said Herbert's spokesman, Marty Carpenter.
Carpenter said he checked with Herbert's campaign fundraisers and found that Lawson never raised any money for the governor.