Charging documents released Tuesday after the arrest of two former Utah attorneys general detailed a battery of corruption and bribery accusations that included the allegation that one of them accepted payments to try and help an embattled local businessman make his case to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The charging documents quote an email exchange in which former state Attorney General John Swallow allegedly tells the businessman -- who was facing a federal fraud investigation -- that he could help him gain access to Reid through an intermediary, but it “won’t be cheap.”
The anecdote was a pointed reminder that a case which has made headlines for months in Utah could eventually have national implications.
“This has been a complex, nuanced, large investigation,” said Utah County Prosecutor Sim Gill, a Democrat, who led the joint investigation with Republican Troy Rawlings from neighboring Davis County. “There are multiple players in it, and there have been very productive leads that continue to be investigated.”
Both Swallow and former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff denied the charges, with Shurtleff holding a press conference after being booked to accuse prosecutors of having political motives “all coming to fruition in an election year.” "The allegations against me are completely false,” he told reporters.
With the men facing a combined 23 charges of bribery and corruption in Utah state court, the arrests raised the stakes in a complicated case that has been simmering since November, when Swallow was forced to resign his post in the face of a politically-damaging legislative probe.
With conflicts of interest forcing both state and federal prosecutors to step away from the criminal investigation, the two local prosecutors took on the case with help from a team of FBI agents assigned to them.
ABC News interviewed Gill and Rawlings about their investigation in March, and both said that they had already seen troubling evidence suggesting law enforcement officials needed to expand the examination to look at the campaigns of federal figures, including Reid and Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R). Both investigators said they felt that part of the investigation should fall to public corruption investigators at the Department of Justice.
Specifically, Rawlings said in March that the agents began picking up “bread crumbs” relating to Senator Reid’s contacts with representatives of online poker industry.
“As we do our investigation focusing primarily on the state officials, we are sweeping up these bread crumbs and then, [will] combine them to see where they go,” Rawlings said.
Representatives for Reid and Lee dismissed the comments at the time as the product of political grandstanding. Reached yesterday, a spokesman for Reid reiterated that view.
“I don’t have anything to add to what we’ve said before, that these are clearly desperate men making things up,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman.
Rawlings declined yesterday to speculate about where the case might go next but reiterated there is much work left to be done.
"Our joint investigation with the FBI to this point has not focused on any federal elected official,” Rawlings said. “The charges today, while they remain unchallenged and the defendants are innocent until proven guilty, show that in the state of Utah we are willing to take seriously allegations of political or public corruption against anybody. We’re not going to run from it.”
Reid’s name did surface in charging documents for Swallow, which spelled out a lengthy narrative of events that in part led to the arrests. The documents describe a deal-gone-bad in which prosecutors say Swallow tried to play the role of match-maker. Swallow allegedly took a cut of a $250,000 payment he brokered from Internet marketing mogul Jeremy Johnson, who was facing an investigation into his business by the Federal Trade Commission. In exchange, Swallow promised to enlist the help of a prominent businessman to reach out to Reid on Johnson’s behalf. Although Johnson paid the money, he never got a meeting with Reid. He was later sued by the FTC and faces fraud charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
The entire episode splashed into public view last year after a local newspaper posted an audio recording on its website in which Swallow and Johnson were discussing the deal. Johnson can be heard urging Swallow to get him his money back because the payments had not yielded help from Reid.
Reid has denied any knowledge of the deal, with his spokesman calling Johnson “a desperate individual who’s been indicted on over 80 counts.”
“His allegations are false and [are] the flailings of a desperate man,” the spokesman said.
Sammy Linebaugh (@SammyLinebaugh) is a freelance reporter based in Utah.