Secret recording stirs troubled waters for Attorney General Swallow

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 7:35 p.m. MST

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks out Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in his office at the state Capitol about allegations that he was involved in improper deals.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Future Utah Attorney General John Swallow and indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson talk about whether thousands of dollars that changed hands were to a pay off a powerful member of Congress or to hire lobbyists in secret recording that became public this week.

Johnson insists the money was meant to buy Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's influence to end a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Johnson's Internet marketing company. Swallow says he understood it would be used by his friend, Richard Rawle, to hire federal lobbyists on Johnson's behalf.

But before the hourlong conversation ends, Swallow, who repeatedly says he did nothing criminal, sounds like he thinks he could be the subject of a federal investigation that could end his career as a lawyer.

"At the end of the day, I don't want to be a felon when I'm not a felon," Swallow says on the recording given to The Salt Lake Tribune and posted on its website.

"I don't think they care about you," Johnson says. "They want Reid."

Reid has disavowed any knowledge or involvement of Johnson's case.

“The allegations of bribery by Mr. Johnson, a man with a background of fraud, deception and corruption, are absurd and utterly false. Bribery is a crime for which Sen. Reid has personally put people behind bars. Sen. Reid will not have his integrity questioned by a man of Mr. Johnson's low record and character, and his outrageous allegations will not go unanswered. Clearly, a desperate man is making things up," according to Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman.

Swallow, too, has denied any wrongdoing.

"The release of this recording confirms everything I've said about this from the beginning. I did not do anything illegal and I encourage Mr. Johnson to fully cooperate with the ongoing investigation," he said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah acknowledged last week that it is investigating Johnson's claims.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the problem for Swallow is that the recording keeps the story alive and tends to make it look more "graphic."

"It continues this drip, drip, drip of evidence and it's the kind of thing as a newly elected attorney general you don't want to have to spend your time talking about or worrying about, yet there's really no way to avoid it," he said.

Burbank said Swallow has to be concerned about public perception.

"What you don't want is the sense that you were doing these things and maybe it wasn't technically illegal but it looks bad," he said. "As an elected official, particularly as attorney general, you have to worry about that."

The FTC alleges Johnson bilked consumers out of more than $275 million with deceptive "trial" memberships to bogus government grants and money-making schemes. Federal authorities shut down his company, iWorks, and seized all of Johnson's assets in 2011. Johnson also faces criminal fraud charges associated with his business.

Johnson secretly recorded the April 20, 2012, conversation with Swallow at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Orem.

The St. George man said Tuesday that the recording wasn't his idea.

"My attorney wanted me to do it, so I did it," he said. Johnson's lawyer, Nathan Crane, did not return an email for comment.

In fall 2010, Johnson had sought help from Swallow, who was then the chief deputy attorney general, when iWorks was being investigated by the FTC. Swallow introduced him to Rawle who he said had connections to federal lobbyists who might be able to help for a hefty fee.

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