Feds’ tactics in Johnson-Swallow case are part of what’s ‘destroying the American civil justice system,’ judge says

Jeremy Johnson looks on after arriving for court during the trial for former Utah Attorney General John Swallow at the Matheson Courthouse Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

A federal judge on Wednesday unloaded on the Federal Election Commission over its pursuit of a lawsuit against imprisoned St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson and former Utah Attorney General John Swallow involving allegations of illegal campaign contributions.

The FEC alleges in a lawsuit that Johnson, at Swallow’s urging, used straw donors to contribute $170,000 in illegal contributions to the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., along with then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in the 2009-2010 election season.

Johnson admitted to the practice in an interview with federal and state agents after he says he was promised that the information would not be shared and would not be used against him.

At the end of a hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said he was concerned that by demanding reams of evidence, the FEC was pursuing the case in a manner that far exceeded its importance.

“Now you want to lift up every stone and look under it,” Benson said. “Discovery [in the pursuit of evidence] is destroying the American civil justice system.”

Benson pointed out that Johnson is in prison on his conviction from a bank fraud case and likely doesn’t have money to pay any fine he may be assessed.

“You can‘t get blood out of a turnip,” Benson told FEC attorney Kevin Hancock.

Hancock has been seeking evidence from attorney Ron Yengich, who once represented Johnson in the criminal case, about what Johnson told investigators. Johnson’s attorney Karra Porter said the FEC’s request would overburden Yengich as he tried to sort through which evidence to provide and which to withhold because it involved private attorney-client materials; she said the FEC should pay him for his time.

Hancock said the FEC already possesses recordings of the interviews, but he said other materials related to those recording might provide evidence.