Allegations swirling in fraud case

Shurtleff is drawing fire from both sides

By Lee Davidson and Bob Bernick Jr.
Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 24 2008 12:36 a.m. MDT

Attempted bribery of prosecutors. Threats. Questionable campaign donations. Rumors of political pressure from the highest ranks of Utah GOP politics. A judge making the rare move of rejecting a plea bargain as too lenient, and ordering a trial instead.

Questions about all of the above surround the criminal fraud and racketeering case scheduled for trial of Marc Sessions Jenson Tuesday. And at the heart of that maelstrom is Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Defense attorneys have questioned if Shurtleff brought charges against Jenson as a favor to a political donor to Shurtleff's campaign for re-election. The donor is an alleged victim. On the other side, victims wonder if Shurtleff gave in to political pressure to allow a plea deal that one of his own prosecutors said "does not serve all the interests of justice" and was rejected by a judge.

Shurtleff denies any wrongdoing. But he acknowledges "extraordinary pressure" coming from both sides of the case — including being offered a bribe. Shurtleff says he turned that element over to the local FBI office.

From the start, said Shurtleff, various parties have pushed him to prosecute or drop charges against the defendant. Pressure has included calls from LDS Church mission presidents and from the attorney son of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who represents Jenson in civil cases involving the alleged fraud.

One threat was even a bit comical. Because Shurtleff's wife once went to a high school dance with the accused swindler, Shurtleff said he received a picture of a young couple with a made-up headline, "Jealous AG prosecutes wife's high school sweetheart." The picture apparently was intended to show what might come if the case proceeded.

Shurtleff said, "That's how crazy it was. Believe me, those kinds of things made me more upset. You think you can frighten off a prosecution by this kind of stuff? Well, bring it on."

But both sides say in interviews or court documents that Shurtleff did enough to allow questions to arise about whether political favoritism occurred.

Helping a donor?

First, charges were filed by the Attorney General's Office against Jenson after Shurtleff personally met with alleged victims, including Ricke White, where allegations were made against Jenson. White's wife, Amy, gave Shurtleff $6,500 in campaign donations in 2004 and 2005 — $1,500 of it in 2005 when Shurtleff was not facing election but before Jenson was charged that year.

Shurtleff said such meetings with people who want action by his office occur "all the time." He said he simply listened to their allegations and then had victims talk to staff investigators. He said his professional, merit staff of prosecutors made the decision to file charges and have made all the important decisions in the case since.

But Morris K. Ebeling, who says he lost money in the soured Jenson deal, said that during a meeting with victims, "Shurtleff said he would get this guy (Jenson) off the street, and that he understood what he had been doing."

The Attorney General's Office later would file motions in the case seeking to prevent Jenson's criminal attorneys (led by Greg Skordas, the Democrat who ran against Shurtleff in 2004) from asking about those donations, arguing they have nothing to do with whether fraud occurred.

Shurtleff said he was threatened almost immediately by Jenson supporters, who contended the charges were political. For example, he said he received a made-up headline — apparently as a threat of what he might someday read in a real newspaper — saying, "Shurtleff prosecutes innocent man on behalf of campaign contributor."

He said Jenson and people who know him "brought extraordinary pressure, nothing I have seen before in criminal prosecution, to get charges dismissed."

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