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."
Shurtleff said, "They've hired people who are lobbyists who I've worked with or who I've known and am friends with, people who have raised money for me in the past, to try to get me to drop the charges."I've heard from mission presidents. I've heard from family members," he said. "We actually reported to the FBI a bribery attempt on me." Shurtleff did not give further details about that, saying he had to be careful in remarks since the trial was pending.
Lenient plea bargain
Amid such pressure, something happened that made the alleged victims in the case question if Shurtleff had surrendered to it: His office accepted a lenient plea bargain.
To understand why the judge rejected the plea bargain, here is some history:
Jenson is an ex-felon who served six months in prison for bank fraud. He is charged with bilking millions of dollars each from three investors in his "hard-money lending" operation. Jenson reportedly told the investors their money would be used for short-term, high-interest loans to entrepreneurs in need of cash while the businessmen worked on long-term financing. Upon repayment of the short-term loans, the investors would make money.
But the victims say they were not repaid, that Jenson used their money to fund a lavish lifestyle. He then tried to get them to settle for a fraction of what they invested or were threatened with getting nothing at all. They say he never told them before they invested that he had been in federal prison in 1992 for bank fraud.
So what plea bargain would be appropriate for an ex-felon who is charged with swindling millions of dollars?
Shurtleff's office approved a plea in abeyance in which Jenson would pay a $15,000 fine, with no prison and no requirement to repay victims, even though that is usually imposed in securities fraud cases.
The conviction also was to be held in abeyance for three years under terms of the plea bargain. That means if Jenson committed no crimes in that time, the conviction would simply disappear.
The deal would ban Jenson from "hard-money lending" for three years. But it specifically would allow him to continue as a principal in a group trying to convert the old Elk Meadows ski resort near Beaver into a private gated resort called Mt. Holly Club. Jenson could keep raising money from investors for the resort.
Alleged victims said they were shown that plea deal just a few minutes before the court was to be asked to accept it."If my grandson went in and took a T-shirt from Nordstrom, he would get reprimanded more than Jenson. That's why I went through the roof," said Ebeling, one of the alleged victims. "I wouldn't get any restitution" of the $2.5 million he had lost personally.
Ebeling and other victims protested the deal. 3rd District Judge Robin Reese asked them to put their objections in writing. After
reading them, Reese, in a May 1 hearing, took the unusual move of asking the lawyers to explain the reasoning behind the deal.
"It's rare for a court to inquire into the reasoning behind a plea bargain," the judge said. "In fact, it's almost automatic in most cases where you respect prosecutors' and defense counsels' judgment as to what's reasonable and fair and we would approve it."
But Reese questioned if the deal was appropriate for a man still apparently living in luxury (county records show his 20-room home in Holladay is worth $2.3 million.) Why, the judge wanted to know, did the deal not allow restitution normally ordered in such cases? And why just a $15,000 fine a "fairly minor (amount) compared to what these people have suffered."
Scott Reed, chief of Shurtleff's criminal division, is seen on a courtroom video responding to the judge: "That's a great question, and I wish I had a great answer. I don't."
He said, "This agreement does not serve all the interests of justice. It doesn't ... It serves some, and I think it serves them adequately, given my perspective of the parties as a whole."
Some victims also thought it fishy that Reed, Shurtleff's chief of the criminal division, handled the plea bargaining instead of the line prosecutor who was preparing the state's case at the criminal trial. Reed told the judge that the line prosecutor was busy and that he took on the plea negotiations to allow her to spend her time on the upcoming trial.
When Reese asked why the Attorney General's Office proceeded with the plea, considering the seriousness of the allegations, Reed said, in part, "I was persuaded by the defense counsel that Mr. Jenson's potential as a productive law-abiding citizen is greater served without a conviction."Reed added that Jenson's "1992 securities conviction in federal court (is) being now, for the most part, ancient history as an evidentiary issue as it relates to this case."
Ebeling said he was stunned by such moves by the AG's office. As Ebeling wrote in a letter to the judge, the deal made him ask, "Could there be extreme political pressure being placed on the State of Utah Attorney General from the Jenson civil law firm's family political connections?"
That attorney for Jenson in civil matters is Brent Hatch, son of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Shurtleff and Sen. Hatch both say the two of them never talked together about Jenson. Any hint of political pressure from Sen. Hatch "is absolutely false," said Shurtleff.
Sen. Hatch said through a spokesman he knew nothing of Jenson or the case, and never discussed the case with his son, Brent.
But Shurtleff said Brent Hatch did bring him "volumes of horrible stuff about our witnesses, our victims" arising out of civil suits brought against Jenson. That may be why Reed said in court he was satisfied with the lenient plea deal "given my perspective of the parties as a whole."
Shurtleff said, "Obviously, if you are a prosecutor, your concern is: Is my victim, my witness on the stand, going to be torn apart on cross-examination so they are not credible?"
Shurtleff said he turned over such information to his staff to weigh risks on how credible witnesses would appear, and what the risk was of losing the case and if a plea deal should be sought.
"With a plea deal, at least we've got (Jenson) on a short, very tight leash for three years," Shurtleff said.
But White complained in a letter to the judge that prosecutors started treating witnesses as if they were "criminals pointing the finger at criminals." He said he was not a criminal, and was so hurt at such treatment that he wished he had never become involved in the case."Now I'm hearing rumors that the Attorney General's Office is being politically influenced," he wrote to the judge. "I am ... disappointed in the terms of the plea agreement, and I can understand why rumors like this spring up."