Phone records link Shurtleff to bribery probe
State investigators working with county attorneys obtained a search warrant for cellphone records about calls and texts by former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and others as part of a sweeping investigation that includes potential bribery.
The warrant, signed last month by 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease, demands records from two phones used by Shurtleff since 2007, as well as those used by his friend and confidant, Tim Lawson, who has already been charged with six felony counts as a result of the probe.
Lawson was in 3rd District Court on Wednesday, his first appearance since his arrest a week ago. Judge Su Chon refused a request by Lawson's attorney to lower his bail from $250,000 and set his next hearing for Jan. 6.
In addition to Lawson's six felony charges alleging tax evasion, intimidating witnesses, obstructing justice and a pattern of unlawful activity the search warrant states that investigators are looking at other possible felonies in the case, specifically bribing a public official, evidence tampering, misusing public money and bribery to prevent criminal prosecution.
Shurtleff's attorney could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Under Utah law, search warrants are sealed for 20 days from the time they are approved. The warrant for the phone records, unsealed Wednesday evening, is the first in connection with the investigation of Shurtleff and his successor, former Attorney General John Swallow, along with Lawson and others.
In addition, when Lawson was arrested last week, investigators with the FBI and the Utah Department of Public Safety executed a search warrant at his Provo home.
The newly released documents center on the case of Marc Sessions Jenson, who was charged by the Utah attorney general's office with multiple felony fraud counts.
Charlene Barlow, a onetime prosecutor on the case and now a 3rd District judge, told investigators that she had heard rumors that Jenson offered to help Shurtleff raise money for a U.S. Senate run if Shurtleff would drop the case.
Barlow's boss, criminal division chief Scott Reed, later informed her that Shurtleff "told [Reed] to offer Marc Jenson anything to make the case go away." Barlow refused to be part of the plea negotiations and said she would quit first. Jenson eventually cut a plea deal with the office requiring him to pay $4.1 million in restitution.
While free on the plea deal, Jenson paid Lawson $120,000 over 11 months in 2009, according to court documents.
Jenson told investigators "Shurtleff knew he was paying Timothy Lawson to contact [disgruntled investors] to get them to back off because they were complaining to the attorney general's office."
Jenson also picked up the bill for Shurtleff, Swallow and Lawson to vacation at the businessman's villa at the swanky Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach, Calif. Jenson said that Shurtleff told him if he'd given money to his campaign, Jenson "would never have been in trouble in the first place."
During the trip, court documents state, Shurtleff incurred $2,000 in Internet charges on his state phone.
Lawson is also charged with threatening Utah businessman Darl McBride, who has said that Lawson threatened to have him beaten up if he didn't take down a website critical of Mark Robbins.
McBride had claimed Robbins, a Jenson business associate, owed him money.
Shurtleff later met with McBride and offered him $2 million money he said Jenson would give him if McBride would take down the site, according to a recording McBride secretly made of the conversation. Jenson was operating under a plea agreement with the Utah attorney general's office at the time.
According to court documents, Shurtleff talked to Jenson about the proposed payment during a stay at Pelican Hill. Jenson said that Shurtleff asked him to give the money to McBride and, the documents state, that Swallow was in the meeting "nodding his head during the conversation."
Jenson didn't pay the money to McBride. Nor did he pay his required restitution and, in August 2011, was returned to prison and subsequently chargedwith separate felonies stemming from a planned development of the Mount Holly ski and golf resort near Beaver.
In the courtroom Wednesday, Lawson smiled into the gallery packed with news reporters and photographers as he headed to the lectern at the front of the room.
At first, the 49-year-old Lawson who has been described as Shurtleff's "fixer" and reportedly traded more than 680 calls and texts with Swallow over a four-year period stood on the wrong side of his attorney. He fidgeted with his shackles as the judge read aloud the six felony charges against him.
Lawson's lawyer, Dana Facemyer, asked Chon to reduce the bail for his client, who has been in jail since his arrest.
"He's been incarcerated since Thursday," Facemyer told the judge. "He hasn't had the opportunity to go before a judge until today. We want to address bail."
Chon declined. Instead she assigned the case to Judge Robin Reese, who she said would decide Lawson's bail. A hearing was set for Jan. 6, but Facemyer told reporters he wants the amount reduced and would try to have his client before the judge sooner.
Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Blake Nakamura said the state stands by its recommendation of $250,000 bail, but stopped short of calling Lawson a flight risk.
"The bail was set based on the information we had," Nakamura said. "The two main issues we consider when recommending a bail amount is a person's flight risk and public safety. As far as we're concerned, nothing has changed. We stand by the bail amount we set and the court authorized."
Prosecutors are still "reviewing the evidence" and building a case against Lawson. "What happens at this point," Nakamura said, "is entirely dictated by the evidence."
Reese the same judge assigned to Lawson's case refused to accept a 2008 plea deal facilitated by Lawson on Jenson's behalf that did not include restitution to investors. Reese later accepted a plea deal that called for restitution.
If convicted on all six counts now against him, Lawson could land in prison for up to 50 years.
Several Jenson associates attended Lawson's hearing Wednesday.
The six charges against Tim Lawson
Count 1 • Pattern of unlawful activity, a second-degree felony, apparently related to payments from businessman Marc Sessions Jenson.
Count 2 • Tax violation, a second-degree felony, for allegedly failing to pay taxes on monies that came from Jenson.
Count 3 • Tax violation, a third-degree felony, also apparently related to the Jenson monies.
Count 4 • Retaliation against a witness, victim or informant, a third-degree felony, for a Dec. 16, 2009, voice mail Lawson left for Jeffrey Donner, a Colorado physician who was trying to recover $1.5 million he invested in Jenson's Mount Holly development.
Count 5 • Obstructing justice, a third-degree felony, for a March 4, 2013, phone call in which Lawson allegedly provided false information to Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy over the criminal division in the Utah attorney general's office.
Count 6 • Obstructing justice, a third-degree felony, for allegedly providing false information during an Aug. 27, 2013, interview with FBI agents.
An affidavit by state investigator Scott Nesbitt that accompanies a request for a search warrant in the Tim Lawson criminal case contains information about former Utah Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow.
Nesbitt sought the warrant to obtain information about phone and text messages to and from Lawson, Shurtleff and others.
Here are some tidbits from the documents:
• Former Assistant Attorney General Charlene Barlow, who at one time was prosecuting businessman Marc Sessions Jenson for securities fraud, said she strongly objected to Shurtleff's orders that Jenson be given a soft plea deal. She informed Shurtleff that her case against Jenson was strong. After being told by criminal division chief Scott Reed that Shurtleff had ordered a deal be struck, "Ms. Barlow refused to offer the plea in abeyance and told Mr. Reed that she would quit her job before she would make the offer." Barlow is now a 3rd District judge.
• Jenson told investigators that during one of Shurteff's trips to Jenson's luxury villa at a California resort, the then-attorney general apologized to him and told the businessman that "if he had been a contributor to his campaign, he would never have been in trouble in the first place."
• Jenson said the purpose of the trip was to introduce Shurtleff to "investor friends from New York and Los Angeles to seek funding for his United States Senate campaign."
• Shurtleff and Swallow met with Jenson in California to try to persuade Jenson to pay $2 million to businessman Darl McBride, who had loaned $200,000 to another businessman, Mark Robbins, but had not been paid back and had filed a lawsuit and created a website critical of Robbins. "Marc Jenson stated that John Swallow [then in private practice] was nodding his head during the conversation."
• Nesbitt said that after he was assigned to investigate Lawson at the request of some officials in the attorney general's office, he informed the group during a meeting in February of this year that Shurtleff also was being investigated "for possible criminal acts." The affidavit states one of the charges being investigated was "bribery or offering a bribe."
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