SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff reacted angrily Tuesday to the revelation that a state senator voiced suspicions to federal investigators that Shurtleff protected companies who gave him campaign donations.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, met in August 2009 with an assistant U.S. attorney and agents from the IRS and FBI who were continuing their investigation of Utah County businessman Rick Koerber, who was hit with a federal indictment in May 2009 and additional counts six months later.
In a 40-minute meeting at his St. George office, Urquhart suggested that Koerber might have given Shurtleff, who was mulling a U.S. Senate run, donations through a third party to avoid disclosure laws. But the senator added that the allegation, and similar concerns regarding other companies, was "all speculation."
Urquhart called the alleged practice "selling fire insurance" and likened it to "buying off a judge." In a brief conversation, he told the Deseret News Tuesday that he did not initiate contact with federal investigators but he could not be reached for additional comment.
A summary of the interview, which indicates he did contact then-U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, was included in court filings Friday by Koerber's attorneys as they asked U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart to remove himself from the case. Stewart formerly headed the state Department of Commerce, whose director, Francine Giani, pushed unsuccessfully for Shurtleff's office to prosecute Koerber.
The attorneys argued that the judge's friendship and occasional lunches with Giani — as well as her alleged comments about what a federal judge would think about Koerber having Shurtleff in his "back pocket" — made it inappropriate for him to handle the matter.
Stewart complied, giving the case to U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who could not take it due to her friendship with one of the prosecutors, according to someone involved in the case. It's now assigned to U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups.
Koerber's attorney, Marcus Mumford, and a spokesman for Shurtleff both denied Tuesday that Koerber, who is accused of running a $100 million real-estate Ponzi scheme, contributed to the attorney general directly or indirectly.
Shurtleff himself denied the allegations and told KSL's Doug Wright that federal investigators never asked him about the matter. He said Urquhart has not liked him since the attorney general's office insisted several years ago that a project go out to bid after the senator secured an appropriation to give it to a friend.
"He's been upset with me ever since that," Shurtleff said. He asked Urquhart to apologize for taking his speculation to federal authorities, and charged that the campaign of U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, specifically the senator's son, Jim Bennett, orchestrated the allegations. Urquhart's wife worked as an event coordinator on the Bennett campaign.
"It's inappropriate, it's unacceptable and (Urquhart) ought to be held accountable for it," Shurtleff said. "That attacked the integrity of my office and everything else we've ever done."
In an interview with Wright, Jim Bennett said the idea that he was behind the meeting "strikes me as a big, goofy conspiracy theory."
He said the campaign heard rumors about Shurtleff but declined to go negative.
"We had plenty of resources, we had plenty of time and if we'd wanted to smear Mark Shurtleff, if that had been our focus, we would have done it," Bennett said.
Friday's court filings also include an account of a June 2009 interview in which Giani presented federal agents with details of her department's investigation. She said she had heard that then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. had told Tolman of a request from Shurtleff to have Giani back off the Koerber probe.
Shurtleff spokesman Paul Murphy said Tuesday that never happened.
"Our office had no reason to protect Mr. Koerber," he said.
A Commerce Department spokeswoman said Giani had no comment.