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Questionable ties in Shurtleff’s money trail
Campaign cash » 62 percent of his donations came from sources that frequently raise consumer alarms.
First Published May 11 2013 10:57 pm • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:31 pm

Jason Brailow, cited by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection after 356 consumer complaints, contributed $22,600. The Tax Club kicked in nearly $100,000, all of it after being slapped by the state’s fraud police.

Topping all donors, Jeremy Johnson’s I Works and various associates shelled out more than $217,000. Johnson’s company has been targeted by the state and now faces a federal lawsuit while Johnson himself is staring at 86 criminal charges.

At a glance

Meeting set

On Wednesday, the Utah Legislature’s Government Operations Interim Committee is scheduled to discuss a proposal to study whether the state’s attorney general should be elected or appointed. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in Room 445.

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Reporters Tom Harvey and Robert Gehrke will join Trib Talk host Jennifer Napier-Pearce for a behind-the-scenes look at the ethics controversy involving Utah Attorney General John Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Visit sltrib. com Tuesday at 11 a.m. for the live video chat.

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All these donors and dozens more with regulatory histories gave money to the campaign accounts of then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. In fact, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows that nearly 62 percent of Shurtleff’s $1.9 million in donations from 2008 through 2012 came from individuals or companies with ties to online marketing, multilevel marketing, telemarketing, payday loans or alarm companies — all of which frequently draw the eye and ire of consumer watchdogs.

Indeed, more than 40 percent of political donations to Shurtleff from that period came from companies, business owners or associates who already had faced regulatory or legal action or who later became targets.

The analysis raises questions about the propriety of Utah’s top cop accepting donations from companies and individuals who had either run afoul of state rules or worked in industries prone to regulatory crackdowns. The same questions apply to his fundraisers, including John Swallow, who would join Shurtleff’s staff and succeed him as attorney general.

"It makes me wonder why so many companies are happy to donate to the attorney general, but not other statewide offices," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who has suggested that legislators study whether the Utah Constitution should be amended so that the attorney general is appointed, rather than elected. "If it’s just about good government, why aren’t they giving to the auditor and treasurer?"

Attorneys general walk a tricky tightrope. They are politicians and prosecutors at the same time, said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

"If they’re taking money from an individual and then have to make a decision whether to prosecute that individual, is their judgment going to be compromised?" she asked. "Are they going to have second thoughts? Are they going to hesitate to move forward because it might cut off a good avenue of money they might need to run for office?"

Shurtleff and Swallow did not comment for this story. However, they previously denied ever tying campaign contributions to special treatment from the attorney general’s office.

"I can go to my grave and face my God knowing that I never gave anyone special treatment or did anything inappropriate," Shurtleff has said. " ... Every time I got a campaign contribution, I said, ‘You understand this has nothing to do with the job?’ "

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Swallow’s campaign adviser, Jason Power, has said much the same thing, that Shurtleff and Swallow emphasized to contributors that their money would buy them no special favors.

Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office for a dozen years under Shurtleff and now Swallow, said he "cannot think of a single case where a donor to Mark Shurtleff received special treatment in an agency or enforcement matter."

"The governor, county attorneys and sheriffs also raise funds in partisan races and would face similar conflicts," Murphy said in a statement Saturday. "For example, Consumer Protection, UDOT, Purchasing and Public Safety and other agencies are also under the control of the governor. We would not suggest undue influence in the governor’s office simply by virtue of a percentage analysis as you suggest with respect to Mr. Shurtleff."

On Wednesday, Marc Sessions Jenson, who is in prison on fraud charges, alleged that he had been "extorted" by Shurtleff and Swallow after the businessman ran into legal trouble. Receipts show Shurtleff and Swallow charged thousands of dollars of expenses at a luxurious California beach resort to Jenson.

Shurtleff denies Jenson’s accusations, and Swallow points out his dealings with Jenson took place before he became chief deputy attorney general in late 2009.

Three other Utahns in online marketing recently said that Swallow suggested they would have protection in the attorney general’s office in return for contributions to Shurtleff.

Online marketing emerged as the largest industry on Shurtleff’s contributor list. Its companies, according to the Tribune analysis, provided about $462,000, nearly a quarter of his donations from 2008 through 2012.

Multilevel marketing companies came next, chipping in $354,000, about 19 percent of the total, followed by payday lenders at $109,000 (nearly 6 percent), telemarketers at $108,000 (about 5.6 percent) and alarm companies at $84,000 (nearly 4.4 percent).

A 2011 survey by the Federal Trade Commission identified the Internet as the most common vehicle for committing fraud and the place where about 40 percent of fraud-related purchases occurred. Telephones were used for 30 percent.

Among the top culprits: weight-loss products and work-at-home programs, marketed by several companies on the donor lists, including I Works.

Shurtleff’s leading donor by far was Johnson’s I Works, along with outfits and individuals associated with the online-marketing company. These companies and individuals gave $217,700 to Utah’s attorney general. That’s nearly 11.5 percent of his tally.

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