Denver • Judges who will decide whether to overturn the conviction of high-profile St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson sharply questioned his attorney on Thursday about key aspects of her arguments.
Johnson, an online entrepreneur who was involved in political scandals involving former Utah Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff, is appealing his conviction and sentence in a bank fraud case.
After a high-profile trial in Salt Lake City last year in which he represented himself, Johnson was convicted on eight counts of providing false information to a bank and found not guilty on 78 others. He is serving a prison sentence of 11 years, imposed by U.S. District Judge David Nuffer.
Two of three judges on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals who are considering his case challenged the legal basis for some of Johnson’s arguments and the reasoning behind them.
His attorney, Karra Porter, argued that Johnson did not make false statements to the bank. Rather, she said, his company sent account applications that are the basis of the charges to a third-party agent of Wells Fargo Bank.
Tenth Circuit Judge Carolyn McHugh, of Salt Lake City, said federal bank fraud laws did not require that false statements had to be made directly to a financial institution.
“Congress could have very easily made that a requirement, but did not,” McHugh said.
During the 15 minutes allotted for Porter’s arguments, she touched on issues she raised in appellate briefs; judges frequently interrupted with questions.
Porter briefly argued for overturning Johnson’s conviction because a possible conflict of interest with one of his prior attorneys had not been disclosed to him. That attorney had, for a short time, represented a possible witness against him, but Johnson was not invited to participate in a meeting with a U.S. magistrate judge when the issue first was discussed, Porter has argued.
She also contended that Johnson’s constitutional right to hire attorneys to defend himself was violated when prosecutors and the Federal Trade Commission seized his assets and a federal court in Nevada denied his request for funds.
At the same hearing, Judge Gregory Phillips, of Cheyenne, Wyo., joined McHugh and Judge Nancy Moritz, of Topeka, Kan., in expressing skepticism about the merits of parts of the appeal of Ryan Riddle, who was a manager of Johnson’s I Works company.
“That’s no help,” Phillips told Riddle’s attorney, Joshua Ostler, when he answered one of Phillips’ questions.
Riddle also was convicted of eight counts of providing false information to Wells Fargo. He is serving a five-year prison sentence.
Federal prosecutor Jeannette Swent told the judges that they should affirm the convictions and sentences of both men.
“They were convicted on sufficient evidence to support the verdicts,” she said.
In written arguments submitted in January, Porter contended that Nuffer, who presided over the trial, made numerous serious errors and repeatedly showed prejudice against the defense in front of jurors. But on Thursday it was unclear how much attention the judges will give those arguments.
Swent contended in written arguments that Nuffer properly ruled on numerous issues during the trial and that the alleged displays of prejudice against the defendants were “minor incidents during nearly six weeks of evidentiary rulings.”
The judges of the six-state appeals court, as is typical, gave no indication of when they will decide the fate of the appeals.
Johnson was a profligate political donor in Utah and a philanthropist who on one occasion flew a helicopter to Haiti to aid in earthquake relief.
Criminal cases against Shurtleff and Swallow, built partly around Johnson’s involvement in political fundraising and other matters, ended when charges were dismissed against Shurtleff and a jury in a separate case found Swallow not guilty on all counts.