Jeremy Johnson’s name appears 80 times in the charging documents against former Utah attorneys general Mark Shurtlef and John Swallow.
The pair of former officials were accused last week on multiple felony counts of bribery and obstruction of justice in what local media have described as the largest corruption case in Utah’s history. Prosecutors allege that Johnson, a wealthy businessman who was trying to get the state to approve of online poker, was at the center of much of it.
Shurtleff and Swallow took advantage of Johnson’s private jet, and Swallow and his family spent nights aboard Johnson’s luxury houseboat, according to the indictments. In exchange, the former attorneys general allegedly helped Johnson propel his online poker ambitions as well as navigate a Federal Trade Commission probe into his business, I Works. Swallow allegedly offered, with the help of another associate, to connect Johnson with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to address the federal inquiry. (Reid’s office has dismissed any connections to the case, saying the senator has not even been questioned by authorities.)
Now, as Johnson simultaneously faces that FTC investigation and a related federal criminal case alleging more than 80 counts of conspiracy and fraud, he has reportedly turned over evidence on Shurtleff and Swallow to local prosecutors in the probe that resulted in last week’s charges.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported last month that Johnson told state investigators that Swallow asked him to launder campaign contributions for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) in 2010 and that Shurtleff had asked him to do the same for his own failed U.S. Senate bid earlier in the same election cycle. The information provided by Johnson was disclosed in an unsealed search warrant connected to Swallow’s alleged misdeeds, according to the Tribune.
Prosecutors alleged this week that Swallow and Shurtleff worked behind the scenes while in office to help Johnson as he confronted the FTC’s investigation that began in 2010 into alleged fraud by I Works.
For Johnson, the allegations and accompanying criminal charges were a shocking twist given his reputation inside Utah as an upright citizen and even a hero to some.
The New York Times reported last March that he was known in the St. George, Utah area for helping rescue hikers with his helicopter. He reportedly delivered supplies via the helicopter to Haitian orphanages after the devastating 2010 earthquake and gave away some of his personal possessions, including an iPod and hiking boots, before leaving wearing only his socks.
“When I think of Jeremy Johnson, I think of the most generous person I ever met,” one acquaintance told the newspaper.
But there also appears to be a more eccentric, darker side to Johnson, the Times found. A witness told the paper Johnson would keep stacks of cash and even buried gold out in the desert. To combat the FTC’s allegations, he created a website — EvilFTC.com — and blasted journalists and U.S. senators with an email asserting his innocence.
“We will no longer remain silent and let you mislead the media with your lies and deceit,” he said. “We are compiling documentation to prove that we are innocent of your allegations.”
The FTC alleged that I Works had earned more than $275 million through an Internet scam. The scam allegedly involved websites that offered “free” or “risk-free” government grants that would pay for personal items or other money-making opportunities. It would promise to charge customers only for shipping and handling fees, the FTC alleged, but the customers would later find themselves charged with mysterious recurring fees from companies the agency linked to Johnson.
Johnson’s recreational life, of which Shurtleff and Swallow were allegedly beneficiaries, also got him into a bit of trouble.
He was charged in 2009 with delivering persons by airborne means and disorderly conduct. According to the Glen Canyon National Park ranger’s report in the court documents, a helicopter owned and piloted by Johnson was spotted taking off from a houseboat, going 40 to 50 feet in the air and then hovering over the water while people jumped out.
Johnson pleaded guilty to one of the charges. He was assessed a $4,800 fine and banned from Glen Canyon for a year.
Now he faces millions of dollars in fines and a long stint in prison if he loses in the civil and criminal fraud charges being brought against him, while also playing a pivotal role in the biggest political scandal in Utah’s history.
Three of the 10 people named in the FTC complaint have settled with the agency, agreeing not to participate in certain business activity and handed down million-dollar judgments, though those have been suspended due to their inability to pay. The complaint against Johnson is ongoing, however.