Late last October, then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff met with Jeremy Johnson who revealed — for the first time, Shurtleff says — an arrangement the indicted Utah businessman had with Shurtleff’s chief deputy, John Swallow, aimed at helping Johnson fend off a federal investigation.
The information, complete with emails and other communication, was concerning enough that Shurtleff huddled with his top criminal prosecutor and took the matter to the leading criminal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office, urging him to explore the matter.
"Obviously, I’m very upset by it. I was upset enough to go down and talk to the U.S. attorney and the FBI on a couple of occasions," Shurtleff said in an interview. "This is my friend, my chief deputy. Am I [feeling] somewhat guilty? Am I betraying him? But I felt that the proper authorities needed to know."
After going to the feds, Shurtleff said he told Swallow to do the same — as soon as possible.
The meetings took place a week before Swallow was elected to succeed Shurtleff as Utah’s attorney general and more than a month before Johnson went public with allegations that Swallow helped arrange a deal — Johnson, at times, has called it a bribe — to persuade Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to intervene in a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Johnson’s I Works business.
Swallow and Reid have denied Johnson’s allegations.
Shurtleff said the meeting with Johnson, near the latter’s condo in Salt Lake City’s Gateway, was the first he heard of any deal involving the businessman and Swallow, Shurtleff’s handpicked successor.
Shurtleff said he met with Swallow to hear his side of events, then went to Kirk Torgensen, the chief deputy in charge of the criminal division in Shurtleff’s office, to discuss whether the deal might be criminal.
"It didn’t appear to us that any crime had been committed," Shurtleff said, "but I felt that, because these were potential federal crimes, the federal authorities should know about it."
Shurtleff said he met with Phil Viti, head of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney’s office, and Viti contacted the FBI. Shurtleff said he encouraged the FBI to interview Richard Rawle, the owner of the Provo-based Check City payday-loan chain, who was dying of cancer.
Johnson had agreed to pay $600,000 to Rawle, who had contacts with Reid’s office, and made the first $250,000 payment. But Shurtleff said the FBI didn’t talk to Rawle before he died Dec. 8.
Swallow had done consulting work on a Nevada cement project that Rawle and his partners were trying to launch and was paid $23,500 for his work, according to a declaration Rawle signed before his death.
The U.S. attorney’s office would not comment on discussions it may have had with Shurtleff. Swallow, through a spokesman, also declined comment except to say he also had requested an investigation. The U.S. attorney’s office has confirmed it is investigating Swallow — a probe that, according to sources contacted by the FBI, had been going on for months before news broke of Swallow’s deal with Johnson.
Shurtleff said he didn’t know anything about the consulting work Swallow was doing, although he acknowledges that Swallow has said he told him about it later.
A statement Swallow released last month quoted Shurtleff as saying the work was legal and permissible under office policy. But that is only part of the story, Shurtleff said in the interview.
"While it’s legal, I don’t think it’s a good idea," Shurtleff said. Others in the office teach or write books, but Shurtleff sees the consulting work Swallow did as a different matter. "I don’t like it."
Shurtleff said he hopes the Swallow investigation wraps up soon.
"Right now, the concern is it casts a cloud not only over John and me, but over the whole office," he said. "There are some good employees who do their jobs there and this reflects on them, too."
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.