Tuesday, March 8, 2016

St. George businessman at center of scandal denies fraud charges

St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson looks out his helicopter over Virgin River flood waters Dec. 21, 2010 during a search and rescue effort. 

SALT LAKE CITY --   A St. George businessman who made headlines as a helicopter-flying philanthropist before he became a key figure in an influence-peddling scandal that ensnared two former attorneys general stood before a jury to defend himself against fraud charges on Tuesday.

Jeremy Johnson, who is acting as his own attorney, denied that his online company lied to create shell companies after credit card companies blacklisted them over customer complaints.

He says I Works was honest and transparent as they dealt with a growing number of people asking for refunds.

"We did not hide or disclose the issues we were having and we worked hard to solve them," said Johnson, 40.

He said he was advised to start the new entities as he dealt with the credit card problems he called difficult and upsetting.

Prosecutors rested their case Monday after a month of testimony.

They say Johnson's Southern Utah company lured consumers into memberships for bogus government grants and other moneymaking schemes, then kept charging their credit cards.

So many people went to their credit card companies for refunds that those companies refused to work with I Works, something that could have put the Utah company out of business.

Johnson and other top managers created new companies in the names of their family and friends to dodge the blacklist, prosecutors said.

Johnson and his bookkeeper Scott Leavitt are each facing 86 charges, including fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. Top manager Randy Riddle is also facing 55 charges and representing himself.

The trial began after a five-year buildup that included mountains of evidence, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and a rejected plea deal.

Johnson pushed to represent himself three times, saying the government was listening to conversations with his lawyers.

Before the charges were filed, Johnson donated generously to charities like a St. George home for boys who fled a polygamous group and used his personal helicopters to aid search-and-rescue efforts in southern Utah.

He made international headlines in January 2010 when he bought a plane to fly doctors and other critical supplies to Haiti after a devastating earthquake.

Johnson was arrested at a Phoenix airport in 2011, carrying more than $26,000 in cash and a one-way plane ticket to Costa Rica.

Two years later, Johnson dropped a bombshell about the state's top lawman, alleging that then-Attorney General John Swallow had arranged a deal to pay U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada to get rid of the investigation. Reid denies any part of the affair and has never been charged.

The accusation helped touch off a pay-to-play scandal that culminated in the arrest of Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Prosecutors say the top lawmen accepted illicit gifts from Johnson, like vacations on his luxury houseboat and trips on his private jet, as part of a wide-ranging scheme where they traded favors and gifts with businessmen in trouble with regulators during their combined 13 years in office.

Both have pleaded not guilty and deny wrongdoing, and those allegations aren't a part of Johnson's fraud trial.

In addition to his federal fraud case, Johnson also faces a separate civil lawsuit in Las Vegas over his company's practices and Federal Elections Commission lawsuit over his political donations.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.thespectrum.com

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