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House probe » Investigators say former attorney general may have broken state law.

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"I’m going to go out on a limb and say that," said the lawmaker, specifically addressing FBI agents and a state Department of Public Safety investigator who sat in the back of the committee room.

The Coalition of Religious Communities — a longtime critic of payday lenders — called Friday for a separate investigation into that industry by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "The undue influence this agency has had in the Utah attorney general’s office," it said, "has allowed that industry to behave in an outrageous manner with impunity."

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The committee also laid out an effort by Johnson to persuade Swallow and Shurtleff to give the state’s blessing to processing payments for online poker in Utah.

Johnson was part owner of thenow-defunct SunFirst Bank in St. George and a partner in a company that was processing poker payments.

Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts, who handles poker issues in the office, said Johnson and Swallow "engaged in a continuing dialogue" to see if there was "wiggle room" in state law on poker processing.

Roberts was not involved in those discussions, he said, nor was chief deputy attorney general Kirk Torgensen, who oversaw criminal cases — such as illegal gambling.

At the same time Johnson was pressuring Swallow to approve the poker payments, he let Swallow use his 75-foot floating mansion on Lake Powell at least three times, Mintz said. Johnson, at Swallow’s request, lined up donors for Sen. Mike Lee’s campaign — which also employed Powers — and Johnson and Swallow discussed taking an Alaskan retreat on Johnson’s luxury jet to plan Lee’s campaign. The trip apparently did not take place.

"Just ask yourself," Reich said, "if the average citizen, someone other than Jeremy Johnson, had wanted access to the office on their issue, do you think it’s likely they would have had access to the attorney general and chief deputy?"

Friday’s proceedings concluded with the story of Tim and Jennifer Bell, a Utah couple suing Bank of America, challenging the financial giant’s attempt to foreclose on their home. The state later joined their suit on behalf of about 5,000 Utahns whom the bank foreclosed upon and 13,000 who had received notices.

In August 2012, the Bells staged a lavish fundraiser for Swallow at their home, where, Mintz said, it appears Swallow first connected Tim Bell to the case the attorney general’s office was handling.

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Rather than recuse himself as a result of the conflict, investigators discovered, Swallow remained closely involved in negotiations with the bank and in contact with the Bells.

On the eve of November’s 2012 election, Bell contacted Swallow and asked for help on his mortgage modification on the couple’s home — the same one where they hosted the fundraiser — which was approved two days later. Bank of America agreed to forgive more than $1 million of Bell’s principal and reduce his interest rate from 7.5 percent to 2.6 percent.

Even though the Bells settled, attorneys for the state saw their case as the best shot to help thousands of Utahns in similar predicaments and,thanks to a favorable ruling by a federal judge, wanted to continue.

Shurtleff unilaterally killed that notion Dec. 27, 2012, when he signed an agreement to dismiss the matter — without consulting other office attorneys.

In an email, the lawyer who had been handling the case demanded to know why Shurtleff had done that.

"This was becoming a very complicated issue for John," Shurtleff replied, "given Bell hosted a fundraiser for him in the subject home and Bell is also a person of interest in a fraud matter we are investigating."

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, was dumbstruck by the email. "Are you saying the attorney general dropped a case with legitimate interest for homeowners in the state of Utah to protect Swallow from the conflict?"

Reich said the pay-to-play pattern leads him to believe that was the case.

"It’s an effort to hide from public scrutiny," Reich said, "the very bad situation and inappropriate situation that Mr. Swallow had put himself in."

The campaign later contacted the Bells and asked them to revise the estimated cost of the fundraiser, initially listed at $15,000. They lowered the tab to $1,000. In reality, Mintz said, receipts show the price tag topped $28,000.

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