- Associated Press - Friday, July 29, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A helicopter-flying Utah businessman who was a central figure in a pay-to-play scandal involving two former state attorneys general was sentenced Friday to 11 years and three months in federal prison after he was convicted of lying to banks to keep his online business afloat.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer scolded Johnson, acknowledging that Johnson has done good things in his life, but said his criminal actions cast a stain on him like a bucket of clean water being contaminated by raw sewage.

“The problem is becoming comfortable lying, concealing and deceiving,” Nuffer said. “When you do that in one area, it taints all areas of your life.”

Nuffer ruled in front of a packed courtroom in Salt Lake City that included Johnson’s wife and one of his young daughters. A handcuffed Johnson, in tears with his head down, was escorted out of court by authorities. Dozens of families and friends cried and hugged as they watched him leave.

Johnson was convicted of eight counts of making false statements to banks, but the jury cleared him of dozens more charges, including fraud and conspiracy.

He will appeal the convictions and the sentence, said attorney Karra Porter outside court. His wife, Sharla Johnson, said the judge and prosecution’s portrayal of her husband isn’t accurate.

“Jeremy is a beautiful ray of sunshine in our lives,” said Sharla. “He’s the kindest, most generous man. We adore him. We love him. We have two beautiful girls who will miss him terribly but we will never give up the fight.”

Federal prosecutor Jason Burt argued that Johnson should receive a lengthy prison sentence because he is an unremorseful, greedy schemer and con man who took advantage of dozens of people who trusted him. Federal prosecutors asked that Johnson spend up to 22 years in prison.

“He used them really without remorse, all to benefit himself,” Burt said.

Credit card companies had to pay about $1.7 million in recharge fees that Johnson’s company should have shouldered, authorities said.

Johnson didn’t speak during the hearing but his attorney Mary Corporon said he’s a good man with a good heart and good intentions who is “worth salvaging,” noting his trip before his downfall to Haiti to deliver supplies after a devastating 2010 earthquake.

“He can’t be salvaged in a prison,” she said.

Johnson’s southern Utah company I Works sold online access to government grants and other moneymaking schemes, but after people signed up the company then kept charging their credit cards, prosecutors said.

So many people went to their credit card companies for refunds that those companies refused to work with them, something that could put I Works out of business. To dodge the blacklist, Johnson and other top managers lied to banks to create new companies in the names of their family and friends, prosecutors said.

Johnson has said he was transparent in his business dealings and prosecutors cherry-picked emails to build their case.

Before his arrest, Johnson was a well-known political donor and millionaire philanthropist.

Johnson was arrested at a Phoenix airport five years ago with thousands in cash and a one-way plane ticket to Central America. He later claimed the state’s top lawman arranged to pay U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to toss the investigation of Johnson’s internet business after the attorney general and his predecessor took gifts such as luxury vacations from Johnson and others, prosecutors say.

Reid denies any part in the affair and has never been charged. The case against one former attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, was dropped on Wednesday. His successor John Swallow has pleaded not guilty to charges including bribery and accepting improper gifts.

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