Jury mulls businessmen's fraud case that toppled Utah lawmen

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah businessman urged jurors on Friday to clear him of fraud charges after the helicopter-flying philanthropist became a key figure in an influence-peddling scandal that ensnared two former state attorneys general.

Jeremy Johnson was arrested five years ago with thousands in cash and a plane ticket to Central America. He later claimed the state's top lawman arranged to pay U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to toss the investigation after the attorney general and his predecessor took gifts such as luxury vacations from Johnson and others, prosecutors say.

Reid denies any part of the deal and has never been charged. Both attorneys general have pleaded not guilty to charges including bribery and accepting improper gifts.

Johnson, who acted as his own lawyer, implored the jury to look at the evidence and return a not-guilty verdict for him and two co-defendants.

"You're the only thing that stands between us and completely destroyed lives," Johnson told the jury.

The Salt Lake City panel began deliberating after hearing six weeks of evidence and testimony. Prosecutors say Johnson and his top managers lied to banks to create shell companies because they were in danger of going out of business after being blacklisted by credit card companies.

Johnson, 40, said that prosecutors cherry-picked lines from emails to build a case against him. He says that everyone involved knew what they were doing as they tried to deal with a growing number of people asking for credit-card refunds.

Johnson and his bookkeeper Scott Leavitt are each facing 86 charges, including fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. Top manager Ryan Riddle is facing 55 charges and is representing himself.

The trial began after a five-year buildup that included mountains of evidence, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and a rejected plea deal. Johnson pushed to represent himself three times, saying the government was listening to conversations with his lawyers.

Before the charges were filed, Johnson donated generously to charities including a home for boys who fled a polygamous group and used his personal helicopters to aid search-and-rescue efforts in southern Utah. He made international headlines in January 2010 when he bought a plane to fly doctors and other critical supplies to Haiti after a devastating earthquake.

Johnson was arrested at a Phoenix airport in 2011, carrying more than $26,000 in cash and a one-way plane ticket to Costa Rica.

Two years later, Johnson dropped a bombshell about the state's top lawman, alleging that then-Attorney General John Swallow had arranged a deal to pay Sen. Reid of Nevada to get rid of the investigation into Johnson.

The accusation helped touch off a scandal that culminated in the arrest of Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Prosecutors say they both accepted illicit gifts from Johnson, such as vacations on his luxury houseboat and trips on his private jet, as part of a wide-ranging scheme where they traded favors and gifts with businessmen in trouble with regulators during their combined 13 years in office.

Swallow is facing more than a dozen charges, including receiving a bribe and misuse of public money. Shurtleff is facing seven counts, including accepting improper gifts and obstructing justice. Both deny wrongdoing.

Those allegations are not a part of Johnson's fraud trial.

Johnson also faces a separate lawsuit in Las Vegas over his company's practices and Federal Elections Commission lawsuit over his political donations.