- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Prosecutors on Monday dropped three bribery charges in the case against former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Though the ex-top lawman still faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted, his lawyer called the removal of pay-to-play allegations a game-changer in the criminal case. “It should never have been in there,” Richard Van Wagoner said.

Prosecutors say Shurtleff accepted money and gifts like beach vacations and the use of luxury homes and boats while in office.

Seven charges remain against Shurtleff, including accepting improper gifts, obstruction of justice, and a count alleging that Shurtleff tried to bribe a victim to derail an investigation. The changes come after months of arguing with prosecutors over the evidence, Van Wagoner said.

It appears that prosecutors are tailoring the charges to the evidence, not necessarily scaling back the case, said former prosecutor Kent Morgan, now a private attorney. The charge of accepting improper gifts is generally simpler to prove at trial than bribery.

Prosecutors were scheduled to begin laying out their case against him Monday. Instead, Shurtleff waived a preliminary hearing during a brief court appearance on the condition that he could still have the hearing later.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings declined to comment on the changes.

Though Shurtleff’s attorney admonished him against talking to the media, the colorful onetime politician spoke briefly to reporters gathered outside the courtroom.

“I’m feeling good,” Shurtleff said. The 57-year-old former top lawman was arrested last July along with his successor and former chief deputy John Swallow. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Van Wagoner said Shurtleff is innocent, and he called the allegations against Shurtleff “business as usual” for politicians.

“If you think the allegations against Mr. Shurtleff were unusual or extraordinary, think again,” he said. Van Wagoner pointed to a donation from 1-800 Contacts to current Attorney General Sean Reyes. It has come under scrutiny as his office defends a law that critics say was written to benefit the company.

Reyes spokeswoman Missy Larsen says no donation influences any policy in his office.

Shurtleff is expected to enter a plea at an arraignment scheduled for June 29.

Shurtleff served at the state’s Republican top lawman for a dozen years before he left office in January 2013. Swallow, his hand-picked successor, resigned amid the allegations later that year.

Swallow decided to bypass his preliminary hearing earlier this month. His lawyer says evidence in the case is widely known, so the defense had little to gain by airing it publicly. Defense attorney Stephen McCaughey says there’s enough evidence to send the case to trial under Utah’s relatively low bar for bind overs, but there’s been no discussion about a plea deal.

Shurtleff joined a Washington, D.C., law firm after he left office, but he resigned six months later. In April, he began posting YouTube videos to advertise his services as a criminal defense attorney.

The Utah State Bar rules allow Shurtleff to take on clients as an attorney while he faces criminal charges of his own. If Shurtleff is convicted, he could be disbarred. He has said his experience on the other side of the court system gives him more empathy for defendants.

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