Larry Keller, attorney for C. Dean Larsen, has accused State Attorney General David L. Wilkinson of filing 50 felony charges against Larsen solely to rejuvenate Wilkinson's political race against Democratic challenger Paul Van Dam.
"I've never seen charges so political as those brought against Dean Larsen," Keller said. "The attorney general's office has made a terrible mistake - a mistake that may destroy Dean Larsen and his family even though we will ultimately be successful" in court.Keller went on the offensive this week after Larsen urged him to tell Larsen's side of the story. Larsen has been charged with 50 counts of securities fraud, theft, unlawful dealing of property by a fiduciary and offer and sale of unregistered securities. Larsen was president of Granada Inc., a real estate development company that went bankrupt in February 1987.
Keller criticized both Wilkinson and Granada's court-appointed trustee, Peter Billings Jr., accusing Wilkinson of political motives and Billings of irresponsibility in commenting to the media on the size of the bankruptcy.
Keller, in turn, was criticized by Associate Deputy Attorney General Paul M. Warner for trying Larsen's case in the media and making irresponsible and groundless charges. Civil attorneys working on Granada's bankruptcy said Keller's understanding of the bankruptcy was too scanty to warrant public criticism.
Keller did not go so far as to say that the charges wouldn't be filed at all if Wilkinson hadn't been running for public office, but he did say Wilkinson deliberately filed them before the election so he could claim to be tough on white collar crime.
Van Dam called Keller's charges "ironic." Van Dam does not believe the charges against Larsen are political.
"That's one of the biggest cases that has come down the pike. It's going to be a major case for us," Van Dam said. He will aggressively pursue the prosecution of Larsen when he takes office in January.
Warner said Wilkinson made no attempt to make political hay out of the charges. He noted that, unlike U.S. Attorney Brent Ward, Wilkinson did not call a press conference when charges were filed against Larsen. Ward called a press conference the day charges were filed against Larsen to announce grand jury indictments against Gary Sheets, Larsen's lifetime friend.
"When we filed our case, we quietly went down to the courthouse and filed it. No press conference or anything. Larry Keller is the one who called the media, had a press conference, issued a press release and made a big deal out of this thing."
Keller insists that if Wilkinson's staff had waited until after the election to file charges, it probably wouldn't have filed any at all. He said attorneys in Wilkinson's office had promised him plenty of time to talk them out of filing charges against Larsen before the charges were actually filed.
Keller had presented part of his case to prosecuting attorneys and he thought he had more time. But an attorney with Wilkinson's office called Keller on Oct. 19 and told him charges would be filed that afternoon.
"I don't believe they would have filed any charges at all if they had given me an adequate opportunity to present my information," he said.
Warner tells a different story. Keller asked Warner in September to give him a 10-day extension before filing charges against Larsen, Warner said.
After that extension was up, Keller asked for several more.
"We held off on this thing while Keller took a vacation and messed around on a variety of different things," Warner said. "I promised Larry only one thing: as long as he could continue to demonstrate that we were wrong, we would listen. But when my prosecutors told me that Larry could not demonstrate to them that he was doing anything more than delaying the filing of these charges, we proceeded. Mr. Keller knows that. Mr. Larsen knows that."
Keller said that after filing charges against Larsen, Wilkinson referred to them repeatedly in political debates as "the largest criminal fraud charges his office has ever filed," Keller said. "He has clearly used this as a political tool."
Keller played down the size of the Granada bankruptcy, claiming it is much smaller than claims against the estate suggest.
"There are people I've dealt with in Granada who feel ultimately a maximum of between six to eight million dollars will be lost to investors," Keller said.
Attorneys working on the Granada bankruptcy say no one will know the actual loss to investors for nearly a year, but they point out that Granada, under Larsen's supervision, filed a list of debts totaling $105 million when the company first filed for bankruptcy. Creditors have since filed nearly $47 million in claims against the company.
Keller believes the presumed size of Granada's bankruptcy and the scores of charges filed against Larsen have convinced the public that Larsen is guilty. Larsen's preliminary hearing is Dec. 5. If Larsen is bound over for trial, Keller said he may try to get a change of venue, claiming Larsen can't get a fair trial in Salt Lake City.
Some of Keller's criticisms were ironic. He criticized the several attorneys and accountants working on the Granada bankruptcy for submitting a bill of $800,000 for their work. Keller himself was the subject of similar attack last year when he served as special prosecutor for the Salt Lake County Grand Jury. He and co-counsel, Rod Snow, were sharply criticized by county and state officials for submitting legal bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for prosecution work.
David Leta, attorney for the unsecured creditors committee, has examined the bills filed by all the lawyers and accountants. He defended them as reasonable and blamed Larsen for the cost.
"The costs that have been incurred by the estate are directly proportional and related to the mess which Dean Larsen created," he said.
Granada's books are in such disarray that the only way accountants and lawyers can find money in the estate and determine who the money goes to is to go back and reconstruct the records, he said.
Warner noted that by taking his case to the public, Keller was doing the very thing he complained about others doing during his tenure with the grand jury.
"Larry has disappointed me greatly," Warner said.