SALT LAKE CITY — A former chief deputy attorney general warned John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff that associating with Tim Lawson spelled trouble.
Kirk Torgensen described Lawson — who considered himself Shurtleff’s “fixer” — as a wild card Friday during testimony in Swallow’s public corruption criminal trial. He said he told Swallow he had “major problems” with Lawson shaking people down. He said he told Shurtleff as well, but he didn't do anything about it.
"I guess Lawson was going to, well, get us where we are today," Torgensen told the 12-person jury.
In fact, Torgensen wrote an email to the two former Republican attorneys general in 2010 saying: "Lawson is the guy that is going to bring down the house of cards."
The trial took a strange detour Friday afternoon when 3rd District Judge Elizabeth Hruby-Mills cleared the courtroom, saying there needed to be a "private" discussion with jurors. A windowed conference room at the back of the courtroom offered a view inside but no sound.
Hruby-Mills then brought all 12 jurors back, talked to them for a few minutes and excused them from the courtroom. Two attorneys then took seats in the jury box, while others sat in random places in the gallery, apparently looking at sightlines.
The judge then brought five jurors back — three men and two women — spoke to them briefly and excused them again.
"All I can say is that it’s a security issue we're looking into," said court spokesman Geoff Fattah.
When court resumed, Hruby-Mills reminded the gallery of her "decorum" order for the trial. She reminded people not to do anything to distract the jury and not to make any contact with jurors, not even eye contact.
Called as a prosecution witness, Torgensen, who spent 22 years in the attorney general's office and now lives in Florida, offered his view of the relationships Swallow and Shurtleff had with Lawson.
Torgensen testified that he expressed his displeasure with particularly Shurtleff traveling to the posh Pelican Hill resort in Southern California with Swallow and Lawson in 2009 to see wealthy businessman Marc Sessions Jenson, who was on probation at the time. He called it "foolish" and "stupid."
"I am still baffled why the attorney general of the state of Utah would take such a trip," he said.
In posing a question to Torgensen regarding Swallow's role in the trip, defense attorney Cara Tangaro called it "distasteful but not criminal."
Torgensen said he told Swallow, who was a private attorney but Shurtleff's chief fundraiser at the time, that he would have hoped that he would see that it didn't make sense, that it was wrong.
"The issue at Pelican Hill was really a public ethics issue," Torgensen said.
Tangaro also asked Torgensen about being interviewed by the FBI during the investigation into the two former attorneys general. Torgensen said he spoke to the FBI and said it was "99 percent Shurtleff, 1 percent Swallow."
Torgensen also testified that he was bothered by how involved Shurtleff became in Jenson's criminal case, calling it unusual. He said he opposed a sweetheart plea deal that Shurtleff worked out for Jenson — a deal a judge later rejected as being too lenient. He also said it was inappropriate and unethical for Lawson, who wasn't a lawyer, to be involved in it.
Again Friday, much the testimony centered on Shurtleff and Lawson, not Swallow.
Paul Nelson, who worked for Jenson as an officer manager and security officer, testified that he questioned paying the “maniac” Lawson to be Jenson’s conduit to Shurtleff.
“Timothy Lawson was not a consultant, he was a scam artist,” he said.
Nelson said he went directly to Shurtleff to ask him to drop the case against his boss. He said Shurtleff asked what would be in it for him.
Nelson said he told Shurtleff nothing, but that maybe he could help raise campaign funds for him. He said he made it clear he wouldn’t do anything illegal.
Later, Shurtleff acted as a confidential informant in a sting of Nelson as part of an FBI bribery investigation. Nelson called the bribery accusation “untrue, unfounded and not the case.” Nelson was never charged with a crime in connection with the investigation.
Nelson testified that he wanted to do what he could to help Jenson, but he was not a "vigilante."
Prison phone calls
Lead defense attorney Scott Williams spent part of Thursday questioning Jenson about statements he made in interviews with investigators from prison about Swallow and Shurtleff starting in 2013. Williams also played recorded phone calls that Jenson made while incarcerated.
Williams said Jenson talked about “wanting revenge” and “collecting a few scalps” with the information he was sharing with law enforcement.
On the witness stand, Jenson said that sounded more harsh than something he would say, but added that women in labor and men in prison shouldn’t be held accountable for some of the things they utter.
On Friday, Williams played a recorded phone call of Jenson from jail, apparently to show his state of mind. Jenson says on the call that "almost everybody who hurt me is Mormon." He complains that Mormons were a persecuted people and now they're persecuting him.
In her follow-up questioning, assistant Salt Lake County district attorney Chou Chou Collins asked Jenson about his mental state in prison. Jenson said he became unstable, hopeless, angry and depressed.
"You become an animal of sorts," Jenson said.
Under cross-examination, Williams asked Jenson if being in prison made him a liar.
Jenson said he wouldn't use that word but said "it gives you an altered perspective." He said he wouldn't hold himself accountable for things he said from prison.
Jenson claims Swallow, Shurtleff and Lawson extorted him for money and favors when the attorney general’s office was prosecuting him for selling unregistered securities. Jenson served four years in prison for failing to pay $4.1 million in restitution after reaching a plea deal in the case.
He said Swallow, Shurtleff and Lawson told him that if he paid money to businessman Mark Robbins — who was not one of the people a judge had ordered him to pay restitution to — that it would count as his restitution.
State prosecutors allege that Swallow, Shurtleff and Lawson were part of a conspiracy to extract money from Jenson, a one-time multimillionaire, to further their political aspirations and benefit other wealthy businessmen.
Swallow is charged with racketeering, money laundering and bribery among 13 felony and misdemeanor counts. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Collins asked Jenson why he never reported the alleged extortion to law enforcement.
"Who do you report the attorney general to?" he replied.
Jenson said he told everything to his attorneys and relied on their expertise and advice. He said he doesn't know if they ever talked to police. Jenson said he wanted them to go directly to Shurtleff.
Friday marked Jenson’s third day on the stand in the trial. Jurors appeared captivated by his stories and Williams’ poking and prodding at his testimony.
Williams at least of couple of times asked Jenson if he was telling the truth. Jenson replied that he was trying to.
Much of Jenson’s testimony centered on his dealing with Shurtleff, and the former attorney general seems to be on trial every bit as much as Swallow. Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings dropped criminal charges against Shurtleff last year. Lawson also faced criminal charges but died last year before the case was resolved.
Swallow has maintained his innocence and has called the charges politically motivated.
Jenson also testified that Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attended a secret meeting with Utah Transit Authority officials and developers in Corona Del Mar in June 2009.
Paul Benson, a Park City and Newport Beach real estate broker, who was at Pelican Hill at the time, said he attended two business meetings in Corona Del Mar. He said he never saw Hughes, Reid, Shurtleff or Swallow at the meetings.