Bad Company | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

August 07, 2013 News » Cover Story

Bad Company 

An ex-con who says he raised funds for John Swallow is nowhere to be found on the AG's campaign records

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Mimi’s Cafe in Sandy isn’t exactly a biker bar, but in April 2012, the family-friendly diner did play host to a crowd that might’ve been a little rougher around the edges than usual. While not decked out in leathers or sporting face tattoos, the crew that showed up that morning for breakfast was involved in an industry that’s been the subject of increasing state and federal scrutiny.

These were men of the Online Business Opportunity (OBO) industry, a business community of telemarketers who pitch consumers across the country on what critics call too-good-to-be-true programs. These programs promise to teach people how to set up their own websites or build their own businesses, but often leave customers with nothing to show but maxed-out credit cards.

At this particular confab, OBO leaders met over omelets and coffee to get to know the man who some of them hoped would be the new leader of their pack: John Swallow, then a candidate for Utah attorney general.

The Mimi’s breakfast was one of two Swallow fundraisers hosted and emceed by Robert Montgomery, a call-center owner with a checkered criminal past who got his start in the OBO industry as a salesman for IWorks, a St. George-based company whose founder, Jeremy Johnson, is currently under indictment for allegedly having defrauded thousands of Americans out of $275 million.

City Weekly has been reporting on companies like IWorks and their connections with the Utah Attorney General’s Office since 2008. Members of the industry have donated heavily to Shurtleff’s and Swallow’s campaigns for various offices. The Attorney General’s Office is tasked with prosecuting those same companies for consumer fraud if complaints are brought forward by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. But the media and the public are left in the dark about a potential conflict of interest if a donation is never reported in the first place.

Companies that were invited to attend the fundraisers donated at least $27,750 to Swallow’s campaign coffers, as noted on Swallow’s campaign-disclosure documents. Montgomery says he paid for the costs of the fundraisers, including meals and raffle prizes. According to a former employee of Montgomery’s business, Emmediate Credit Solutions, Montgomery spent roughly $2,000 on the fundraisers. But neither Montgomery nor Emmediate Credit Solutions (ECS) was reported on Swallow’s official campaign records.

The purpose of campaign-finance disclosures is to give the public the chance to see how much a special interest gives a politician and decide for themselves whether the donation represents a show of support or a down payment on future back-scratching. The public can’t make those determinations for themselves when donations aren’t reported.

Swallow’s campaign manager, Jason Powers, wrote via e-mail to City Weekly that “Attorney General John Swallow and his campaign are unaware of any political contribution, monetary or in-kind, received from Mr. Montgomery.”

The mystery donation raises questions about Swallow’s conduct while running for office. Swallow is already facing investigations from almost every level of government. Federal officials are investigating IWorks founder Jeremy Johnson’s claim that Swallow helped facilitate a bribe of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to derail a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Johnson’s company. Swallow is being probed by state investigators for the Johnson connection, as well as for receiving gifts from convicted white-collar criminal Marc Jenson. The Legislature has officially deputized a panel to investigate whether Swallow is fit to be a public servant. He’s also being scrutinized by an outside law firm, contracted by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, to look into a complaint filed by progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah that says documents were inappropriately changed on Swallow’s official conflict-of-interest records.

According to former employees, Montgomery and Swallow often met behind closed doors. During an ECS company meeting, Montgomery announced that Swallow would be able to keep federal regulators off his back.

Montgomery says that there was nothing nefarious in his relationship with Swallow. Montgomery says that Swallow asked him to introduce him to his associates in the industry, and his perhaps naïve vision was simply to support the right candidate for office.

“I just hoped too high is all,” Montgomery says. “I wanted to build relationships in government to change the world and change the way our country and state is run ... all of it.”

Desperate Circumstances
According to Montgomery’s LinkedIn profile, he got his start in the OBO world at IWorks in St. George, working for Jeremy Johnson. Johnson was indicted in 2011 for allegedly having defrauded hundreds of thousands of Americans out of $275 million through IWorks by tacking hidden charges onto consumers’ credit cards after they purchased a program from the company on how to apply for government grants.

The OBO industry markets itself as a kind of do-it-yourself resource—helping people who are in dire straits to help themselves by making money on the side, perhaps selling goods on eBay or launching their own Internet business. The bread and butter of the industry, critics say, are desperate people.

Gina DeMaria and her fiance, Carley Smith, were in desperate circumstances in 2012 after having their credit pummeled as Smith battled in court with his former employer over a disability lawsuit.

Smith had worked cleaning up electric trains in Sacramento, Calif. He’d replace ruined seats and move heavy “vandal windows”—window shields that could be easily replaced if marred by graffiti—off the trains nearly every day. One day, while removing an engineer’s seat from a train, he suffered a debilitating back injury. Smith couldn’t afford to stop working, though, so for the next three years, he fought through the pain, using his upper body instead of his injured back.

“After three years of doing that, my arms just went numb,” Smith says. “It got so bad, I couldn’t even hold my arms on the steering wheel of my car.”

A co-worker encouraged Smith to take his employer to court, which he did. After five years of expensive litigation, Smith got 100 percent disability and a sizable settlement from his former employer. But being unable to work during that time destroyed his credit and DeMaria’s.

In summer 2012, several months after Smith won his settlement, the couple decided to buy a house but realized they needed to do something about their credit. They clicked on FHAHomeMortgages.com, which they thought was an official government website, and filled out a survey about their credit. They wouldn’t find out until later that the site was a private website operated by something known in the OBO industry as a lead provider. Lead providers collect personal information to sell to companies like Robert Montgomery’s Emmediate Credit Solutions, based in Murray.

DeMaria and Smith say that representatives from Emmediate Credit Solutions were soon calling and informing the couple that they would need to have their credit repaired before they could qualify for a federal home loan. DeMaria says they thought that they were speaking with a representative of the government at the time. They signed up for ECS’s credit-repair program and, after paying roughly $100 in upfront fees, started having $59 deducted every month from their bank cards.

The company kept charging the couple for months while, they say, they saw no improvement in their credit score. When they complained to ECS, they say, the fees got knocked down to $39 and then $29 a month. ECS ultimately took $748 total from the couple before the couple terminated their relationship with ECS.

No one from ECS, the couple says, could show them that any work had been done to repair their credit.

“They say they’ll do anything to fix our credit,” DeMaria says. “But they just took our money.”

Montgomery didn’t recall the specifics of that case but says the number of complaints has gone down recently since the company created an online system for following the progress staff makes on clients’ cases.

“Usually, if our clients are unhappy, we will refund them their money,” Montgomery says. “We have a pretty liberal refund policy.”

The couple did eventually get a full refund from ECS, but they say it didn’t happen until after they told the company that a City Weekly reporter was asking about their experience.

A Business in the Shadows
According to former employees of ECS, the company had a history of doing well at signing clients up and billing them, but would regularly neglect to do any work on their behalf.

One former ECS employee, Rena Andrus, says the ECS business model was to sign clients up and then mail dispute letters to their creditors to challenge negative credit reports. But she says that through at least the first half of 2012, boxes of dispute letters would pile up and sit unmailed until Rob Montgomery would instruct staff to toss them in the garbage. According to Andrus and other former employees, the company kept billing clients even though they weren’t doing work for them.

Montgomery says this never happened.

Employee X, who worked with Montgomery at Emmediate Credit Solutions and has asked to not be named for fear of reprisal from Montgomery, says it was practices like the unworked files that motivated Montgomery to become friendly with Swallow, who was then running for attorney general.

“Rob [Montgomery] was worried every day about the FTC coming and knocking on his door,” Employee X says.

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Andrus joined with Montgomery’s Emmediate Credit Solutions in 2011 after leaving her job in medical sales. She started on the sales side of ECS, calling people up to sell them on the company’s credit-repair services. She did well enough as a saleswoman that in early 2012, she was promoted to the business side of the company.

The company had an interesting division, she says. Salespeople on one side of the business sold the product without knowing how the other side of the business was actually helping—or not helping—clients.

When Andrus moved over to become an office manager and human-resources manager, she says, she was shocked to discover that the company was not following through on promises to send dispute letters to clients’ creditors. She says boxes full of clients’ information piled up, apparently left unmailed because, she says, the company would not invest in stamps needed to mail the filings. When the boxes stacked up too high, she says, the clients’ information was thrown in the dumpster, and they would start “fresh.” The process was repeated almost every month.

Andrus soon realized she had been selling clients on empty promises.

“Nothing was getting done. No credit repair was being done for them,” Andrus says. “Half the stuff I told them was lies.”

Andrus estimates that less than a third of the clients actually had any work being done for them.

“None of that stuff has gone on,” Montgomery says, dismissing Andrus’ claims as those of a disgruntled employee. “I gave her a human-resources/management position and she wasn’t qualified to hold it, nor did she do a very good job, and so I terminated her for that.”

Andrus, however, says she quit the company of her own choosing in June 2012 after being fed up with the company’s lack of follow-through on clients’ files.

In early 2012, Andrus says, she began to see a new face around the office: then-Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow. She says that on numerous occasions, Swallow appeared at the office and held closed-door meetings with Montgomery.

In one weekly meeting with executives of the company, Montgomery told her and others that having the future attorney general as an ally would mean that Swallow “would help to get the FTC to back off of companies that are ‘aggressive’ ” like ECS, Andrus says. “That was [Montgomery’s] wording.”

She says that Montgomery proudly announced that he and Swallow “were working on things together so that they could keep the laws loose in Utah when it came to call centers and the kind of business Rob [Montgomery] runs,” Andrus says.

Montgomery denies the claim. “I didn’t meet with him a lot,” he says. “His campaign manager just asked me, since I was a supporter, if I would invite my friends to support him and help fundraise for him.”

He says his interest in Swallow was about supporting a pro-business candidate.

“There was nothing in it for my business; my hope was just that he would be a good person in office—to make things the way that they should be rather than just more and more regulations on different companies out there,” Montgomery says.

Telemarketing licenses are one kind of regulation that helps the state keep track of companies that solicit by phone. According to Utah’s laws on telephone solicitation, Montgomery’s business shouldn’t have been dialing the leads it got from FHAHomeMortgages.com without a telemarketing license—something that, according to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, the company never applied for.

Montgomery says that while his company does do telephone solicitations, they’re not required to have a telemarketing permit because he’s licensed as a credit-repair company.

According to Consumer Protection, ECS is licensed and bonded as a credit-services organization, but does not have a telemarketing bond and license. Consumer Protection says the company should have a telemarketing license, and plans to investigate it further.

“A Ticking Time Bomb”
Ryan Jensen has been in the OBO industry since 2008. One of the first floors he worked for was Murray-based Vanuity where, Jensen says, he first met Rob Montgomery.

Montgomery, Jensen says, was fresh out of prison, but within a few weeks, he was running his own sales floor.

Jensen says he was blown away by Montgomery’s merciless sales style.

“My experience with Rob is that he is a pompous, arrogant dude,” Jensen says. “He would get clients on the phone and beat the tar out of ’em. Whether they were broke or not, he would force a damn credit card out of them.”

Employee X recalls that Montgomery was a good-natured jokester, but with a volcanic rage bubbling under his wisecracking surface. X says that when another ECS employee called to take time off work, Montgomery pulled the phone cord out of the wall and swept his own computer off his desk.

“He was like a ticking time bomb,” says Andrus, who says she saw him scream profanities at employees and denigrate female employees, calling them “hos” and “bitches.”

While Montgomery denies Andrus’ claims, he nevertheless does have a history of violence, though he’s keen to underscore that he’s since changed his life.

In 2003, Montgomery was indicted for felony possession of a firearm after his ex-wife killed herself with a firearm of his, which he wasn’t supposed to own because of previous felony convictions. He served four years in federal prison.

According to court documents, her suicide ended an abusive relationship with Montgomery. U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart noted in his 2004 decision to approve harsher sentencing for Montgomery that the “defendant engaged in a pattern of escalating violence against his wife, culminating in an incident just hours before her death.”

A July 2004 Salt Lake Tribune article on the proceedings quoted prosecutors saying that Montgomery had choked his wife into unconsciousness shortly before she took her life.

In Stewart’s decision, he also noted that Montgomery’s ex-wife had tried to kill herself three weeks prior to her death and that when she was released from the hospital, Montgomery refused to let her take her medication, deriding the treatment as “crazy pills.”

The judge’s decision also referenced Montgomery’s past, with Stewart writing that Montgomery’s “prior criminal history includes two felonies and numerous misdemeanors including assault against a police officer and carrying a concealed dangerous weapon. Defendant has a demonstrated history of violence and firearms violations combined with drug use.”

Speaking to his criminal record, Montgomery says it doesn’t have much bearing on his current line of work.

“I’ve never committed fraud or anything like that,” Montgomery says. “I changed my life and worked hard to do that, and I haven’t had any issues since. I’ve always done legit business, always have, always will. So far, [my criminal record] hasn’t affected me negatively ... it probably will if you go and publish all this crap, though.”

Friends of John Swallow
In April 2012, Montgomery began rallying his comrades in the dialing OBO industry to get behind Swallow for attorney general. He sent select industry players an e-mail invite to the fundraiser at Mimi’s Cafe, with Swallow’s picture and campaign logo and the message “Robert Montgomery and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff invite you to attend breakfast with Chief Deputy Attorney General John Swallow, Candidate for Utah Attorney General.”

The e-mail noted that donations were welcome and listed Swallow’s consultant Renae Cowley as a contact. The invitation closes by saying “Paid For by Friends of John Swallow.”

No such group is listed on Swallow’s campaign- disclosure forms as having donated to his campaign, nor is any such political-action committee or corporation registered with the elections office.

According to the Elections Office, Swallow’s campaign had for a time referred to itself as Friends of John Swallow. Swallow’s campaign-disclosure form does list spending $104 at Mimi’s Cafe in April, but it does not identify the expense as part of a fundraiser. Swallow’s campaign manager Jason Powers says that the campaign is unaware of any fundraising done by Montgomery.

But Montgomery says he paid for the costs of the breakfast fundraiser, as well as an earlier fundraiser in St. George. Rena Andrus, who helped Montgomery prepare the fundraiser, says that gifts, including at least two iPads, movie tickets, VIP Jazz tickets and a vacation getaway prize, were purchased to be raffled off to those who donated at the fundraiser.

Employee X estimates that for at least the breakfast meeting in Salt Lake City, the meals cost $30 to $40 per guest and there were more than a dozen people in attendance.

Jensen, who attended the event at Mimi’s, says Montgomery emceed the event, introducing both Shurtleff and Swallow.

“Rob got up and he was like, ‘Hey, we want you to all meet the attorney general and the future attorney general. This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but we want them to know who you are and understand this industry.’ ”

Jensen says there was no mistaking the fact that the event was a fundraiser and says that Montgomery told those in attendance that they were seeking to raise $100,000 for Swallow’s campaign.

Andrus, who did not attend the meeting, says she heard Montgomery say at the office that he had committed to Swallow that he would raise $100,000 for him.

It was this breakfast fundraiser that Jensen’s business partner Aaron Christner, a call-center owner, referenced in a 2012 phone call with Swallow, first reported by City Weekly in May 2012. During the call, which Christner recorded, Swallow said that he planned to have the Attorney General’s Office take over investigations from the Utah Division of Consumer Protection so that he could oversee not only prosecutions of fraud complaints, but the investigations as well.

Christner and Jensen feel that regulation of the industry is out of whack and that too many companies buy protection by allying themselves with the Attorney General’s Office.

The Right Man in Office
While state and federal officials continue to investigate whether Swallow’s actions crossed the line between unethical and illegal and the Legislature decides whether his conduct is befitting that of a public servant, the state is also looking into allegations of irregularities with Swallow’s campaign-disclosure paperwork.

One complaint says that Swallow changed his conflict-of-interest paperwork after the legal deadline to conceal his interest in a company tied to the alleged bribery involving Jeremy Johnson and Sen. Harry Reid.

The paperwork irregularity in the case of Montgomery and his missing donation is just as troubling for advocates like David Irvine, an attorney associated with Utahns for Ethical Government and Alliance for a Better Utah.

Irvine says this kind of “off-the-books money” damages the integrity of the campaign-reporting system.

“Campaign-reporting laws are intended to make political money transparent,” Irvine says. “It’s not just that we want people to know where money comes from and who is providing it; we also want to know if the fact of providing that kind of money is purely to help elect a candidate or if there is some other agenda at work.”

As for Montgomery, his only regret is that his adventure in politics ended on a sour note after watching scandal after scandal unfold involving Swallow and allegations of corruption.

“My main goal was just to put the right person in office to make some major changes in government,” Montgomery says of Swallow. “But you see how that’s turned out.”

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