Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Jeremy Johnson: Social Media Backfire

Posted By on February 5, 2013, 11:37 AM

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Covering Utah's political scene, we're frequently told "no comment," hung up on, given the party line and questioned about our motives. Seldom do we catch a glimpse at how backs are scratched and power is brokered. ---That's why, when indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson brought forth his damning bribery allegations recently, it was like standing under a waterfall, getting hit with a gush of "oh, so this is how the game is played."

In the process, Johnson roped in Utah Attorney General John Swallow and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, alleging their involvement in a deal to ward off a federal investigation of his Internet business that may have defrauded consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

While Johnson's allegations have turned a million-watt light on the Utah Attorney General’s Office, he also hoped the light would shine on his own case. To that end, he’s done numerous media interviews and starred in YouTube videos alleging strong-arm tactics by the feds.

There's this video, for example, alleging that the FTC is tampering with government witnesses to build a case against his company.

And there is this one, questioning if the tactics of prosecutor Brent Ward merit the U.S. attorney's removal.


As reported elsewhere, Johnson supporters may be behind a fake Facebook page formerly under the name of "United States Attorney for the District of Utah." That’s where City Weekly got caught up in Johnson's levers and pulleys last week.

Before we knew about the fake Facebook page, our reporter Eric Peterson met with Johnson and looked into some of the businessman's claims, namely that prosecutor Brent Ward allegedly was pressuring Johnson to take a plea deal. In exchange for Johnson's guilty plea and jail time, Johnson said, Ward informally agreed not to investigate and/or charge what Johnson called a “hit list” that included Johnson's friends and family.

Johnson said Brent Ward had no objections to Utah Attorney General John Swallow's name being on the protected "hit list." Johnson also said he had heard from Swallow that Ward had even endorsed Swallow’s candidacy in the recent election.

As most know, the plea deal fell apart when Johnson insisted the names be read into the court record.

So, Peterson began checking to see if, in fact, Brent Ward were a John Swallow supporter. Among others, he called the U.S. Attorneys Office to speak to Ward, but no one there would comment. Peterson simply was referred to the office's Jan. 13 statement: "It has been reported that federal prosecutors informally agreed not to prosecute John Swallow. This assertion is completely untrue."

While searching online, however, we stumbled upon some manna from heaven in the form of a December 2012 version of a Facebook page for the "United States Attorney for the District of Utah," cached by Google. The cached page contained a post about Ward's endorsement of Swallow. Comparing the cached page to the live Facebook page, it was clear the posting had been taken down, possibly hinting of a sense of error or guilt, so we took a screen shot of the post, which we featured 10 days later in our story.

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The only problem was, the Facebook post was a fake, from a "fan page" that Johnson's supporters appear to have created.

Unfortunately, until we learned the Facebook post was a fake, Peterson's article had been published on our website for almost 12 hours, where it even got a comment or two.

Johnson himself wrote to Peterson to let him know the Facebook post wasn't legit. We immediately took the article down, embarrassed we hadn't adequately vetted the Facebook page.

In the meantime (we don't know exactly when), Johnson's supporters modified and renamed the page as the “[Unofficial Fan Page] United States Attorney For the District of Utah.” But since nothing ever really disappears on the Internet, Johnson’s original fake page came back, not only to bite him but City Weekly, as well.

Johnson still doesn't officially affiliate himself with the rebranded Facebook “fan page." Instead, the page claims to be administrated by a supposedly neutral group called “Citizens for Equal Justice,” just as the FTC video above claims to be produced by Citizens for Fairness in Government.

It not all that surprising, then, that prosecutors have requested to place a gag order on Johnson and what they consider his disruptive smear campaign. In the coming month, a judge will decide if Johnson’s antics are muzzleworthy. In the meantime, he's warned Johnson not to talk about the case in the media.

Peterson says that Johnson believes the government is out to get him and that, with his media campaign, he is fighting fire with fire. But tactics such as a fake Facebook page, instead of shining light on his case, only serve to muddy the waters. When the public becomes aware of Johnson's machinations, all his levers and pulleys, his credibility comes into question.

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