Jeremy Johnson, associates plead not guilty to 86-count fraud indictment
SALT LAKE CITY — One-time multimillionaire Jeremy Johnson and four associates pleaded not guilty in federal court Wednesday to dozens of fraud charges involving his former Internet marketing company.
The U.S. Attorney's Office filed the charges after a proposed plea agreement with the St. George businessman on an earlier fraud charge fell apart in January.
In addition to Johnson, the 86-count indictment names Scott Leavitt, Bryce Payne, Ryan Riddle and Loyd Johnston, all of whom were executives at Johnson's once-thriving online enterprise, iWorks. Charges include conspiracy, bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. The alleged crimes carry prison terms ranging from five to 30 years.
Due to the volume of evidence expected in the case — 55 terabytes according to one defense attorney — U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Warner did not set a trial date. Rather, he scheduled a status hearing in June.
"This is a complex case," said Ed Wall, who represents Payne.
None of the defendants or their attorneys would comment outside the courtroom. Warner earlier advised Johnson, his lawyers and prosecutors not to speak to the media pending his ruling on a gag order proposed in Johnson's previous case.
"Whether I like it or not, that's just the way it is," Johnson said.
Riddle earlier called the charges a "vendetta" against Johnson.
"It is very clear that we are only being prosecuted because the plea deal failed with Jeremy," he said in an email last month. "We have done no wrong."
The indictment mirrors the Federal Trade Commission complaint filed against Johnson in December 2010. The complaint, which also named Leavitt, Payne, Riddle and Johnston, claims iWorks bilked online consumers for nearly $300 million.
The FTC shut down iWorks in 2011 and seized all of Johnson's assets, including helicopters and airplanes, luxury cars, cash and gold.
In the criminal indictment, prosecutors allege iWorks used numerous websites to tout bogus government grants that were available to stop foreclosures and to pay down debt and for personal expenses such as groceries, home repairs, utilities and Christmas presents. The sites claimed the grants could be accessed through a CD offered for a $2.29 shipping fee.
"Many customers who ordered iWorks grant CDs found the CD was not what it was represented to be," according to the indictment. "They also found that their credit cards had been charged, or debited, not only for the shipping fee, but also larger amounts for monthly memberships and other products they did not know about or intend to purchase."
Johnson touched off a political scandal in January when he accused Utah Attorney General John Swallow of helping arrange a $600,000 payment to enlist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an effort to derail the FTC investigation into iWorks. Swallow adamantly denies the allegation. Reid has disavowed any knowledge of Johnson's case.
The FBI and Department of Justice are now investigating Swallow.
In January, Johnson intended to plead guilty in a deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office. He claims prosecutor Brent Ward had a "hit list" of people — including Riddle, Payne, Leavitt and Johnston — that he would go after if Johnson didn't cooperate.
The agreement crumbled when prosecutors balked at listing by name Johnson's wife, parents, Swallow and others whom Johnson wanted protected from prosecution should he admit to bank fraud and money laundering.
Johnson has maintained his innocence throughout the civil and criminal cases. He was originally charged with one count of mail fraud in connection with iWorks. He spent three months in jail after his arrest in June 2011. His family and friends put up a $2.8 million property bond to free him pending trial.
Prosecutors did not seek to detain Leavitt, Payne, Riddle or Johnston pending trial. Warner ordered them to surrender their passports, remove any guns from their homes and to have no contact with each other.
Sniping among prosecutors and defense attorneys began shortly after Warner accepted the not guilty pleas from the five men, who also are named in a FTC complaint filed in December 2010. At issue is access to evidence that could be pertinent to both the criminal and civil cases.
Warner said he doesn't want the two cases blending together, noting he has no control over the FTC matter.
"If it were in my power, I would stay the civil case until the outcome of the criminal case," he said.