SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah 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 went on trial for fraud on Monday, acting as his own attorney.
Jeremy Johnson, 40, is accused of creating dozens of shell companies so his online company could keep making millions of dollars in questionable credit card charges. Federal investigators say Johnson's company I Works lured consumers into memberships for bogus government grants and other moneymaking schemes, then kept charging their credit cards. When people started asking credit card companies for refunds, the credit card companies black-listed I Works.
"I Works was in trouble. If they couldn't accept charges on their website, it would, in all practicality, shut down their business," said federal prosecutor Robert Lunnen. Johnson and other top managers lied to banks to start new companies in the names of their family and friends, prosecutors say.
Johnson declined to make an opening statement Monday morning, though he could do so later. An attorney for his bookkeeper, who is also on trial, said the banks were aware of what the company was doing.
"No one was fooled. No one was deceived," said Marcus Mumford, who represents I Works accountant Scott Leavitt. He and Johnson 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 is expected to last six weeks.
It comes after a five-year buildup that included mountains of evidence, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and a rejected plea deal. He 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 like 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 expected to be 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.