Hard to Swallow | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Hard to Swallow 

House investigators say Swallow lied to CW about controversial fundraiser and Shurtleff threw Utah homeowners under the bus to protect new AG

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John Swallow
  • John Swallow

The credibility of former Attorney General John Swallow was pummeled when House investigators presented evidence of their five-month investigation to a committee of lawmakers on Dec. 19 and Dec. 20, showing that Swallow and his attorney had misled investigators for months.

And, according to House-contracted investigator James Mintz, Swallow’s deceptions have been as recent as mid-December, when Swallow gave a City Weekly reporter details of his relationship with Timothy and Jennifer Bell, who contributed to Swallow’s campaign but later changed the record of their support from $15,000 to $1,000.

Investigators showed that Swallow was not truthful when responding to questions for an article on the fundraiser that was published Dec. 17 on CityWeekly.net.

“As recently as three days ago, it was something John Swallow did not want to tell the truth about,” Mintz told the committee Dec. 20, referring to Swallow’s comments to City Weekly.

Investigators also dropped a bombshell on committee members in showing that Swallow’s predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, dropped a case against Bank of America in the final days of his term to protect Swallow, even though it meant abandoning the interests of thousands of foreclosed-on Utah homeowners.

In 2012, Shurtleff entered into negotiations with Countywide Bank, Bank of America Corporation, BAC Home Loans Servicing and ReconTrust Company over the lawsuit filed by the Bells against predatory practices by Countrywide Financial, which Bank of America had acquired.

Bank of America moved to settle with the Bells, but a Dec. 13, 2012, motion in the Bells’ case noted that the AG would not sign on.

That position was abruptly reversed by Shurtleff in his final days in office, when he signed on to the settlement, a move that “blindsided” AG’s Office attorneys who had worked on the case, according to a January 2012 Salt Lake Tribune story.

The settlement also appeared to benefit Bank of America, a client of the Washington, D.C., law firm Shurtleff was about to join (Shurtleff left the firm several months later).

In early 2013, the story was all about Shurtleff. But, as City Weekly first reported Dec. 17, Swallow was also involved in the controversial lawsuit. And in the middle of the case, on Aug. 17, 2012, the Bells threw a fundraiser for Swallow, contributing $15,000 in-kind by hosting the event, according to their Utah campaign disclosures.

Months after the fundraiser, in January 2013, a member of Swallow’s campaign team suggested to the Bells that they change the disclosure listing from $15,000 to $1,000.

Swallow told City Weekly via text that the contribution “was supposed to be the cost of the event,” and that “a mistake was made in the report which attributed an enormous sum to the cost of the fundraiser.” The fundraiser was held at the Bells’ residence and the “only expense was refreshments and a string quartet,” according to Swallow.

“When we pointed out those facts, they adjusted the in-kind contribution to a number which I assume is in line with the cost of the event,” Swallow texted, adding that his staff “should have caught the error prior to it being filed.”

House investigator Mintz, however, says that in talking with the Bells and examining receipts for the event, they determined the actual cost of the fundraiser was more than $28,000.

Mintz said the campaign was acting to cover up the relationship between Swallow and the Bells, pointing out that Bell had directly donated $5,000 to Swallow, but that the campaign returned that money; Tim Bell’s brother then donated to Swallow.

According to the Bells’ attorney, Abraham Bates, Jennifer Bell first pointed out to Swallow—as he was leaving the fundraiser, which took place at the Bells’ multimillion-dollar Holladay home—that they were the same Bells as those in the lawsuit his office had intervened in.

Just days before the December 2013 hearing, Swallow texted a City Weekly reporter that the fundraiser had been set up by his campaign. “I did not know Mr. Bell prior to the event. When I learned Mr. Bell was a plaintiff in a case that the state was involved in (on the same side, not on opposite sides), I discussed it with the Attorney General and he took final responsibility for the case, including negotiations. That might not have been necessary because our interests were aligned, but we wanted to screen me off the case once we became aware of that fact.”

An October 2012 filing by attorneys representing the banks in the Bells’ lawsuit shows, however, that Swallow and Jerry Kilgore, attorney and lobbyist for Bank of America and a former attorney general of Virginia, “had follow-up telephone conference calls on Aug. 27, 2012, Sept. 5, 2012, and Sept. 26, 2012,” all after Swallow had learned that the extent of his relationship with the Bells went beyond fundraising.

Investigator Mintz pointed out these meetings in the legislative hearing and also showed phone records indicating Swallow and Tim Bell had a six-minute phone conversation Oct. 1, 2012. On Oct. 8, 2012, Bell texted Swallow, writing that he was “Wondering if you could reach out to your contacts with Bank of America to get this [modification] and we could be done with this case.”

Shortly thereafter, the Bells received a loan modification that included a $1.1 million reduction in their principal and a lowering of their interest rate from 7.5 to 2.6 percent.

The conflict of Swallow’s role in advocating for the Bells with Bank of America seems also to have been the cause of Shurtleff deciding to drop the state’s case against the national bank.

As of December 2012, the Bells had settled their case with Bank of America after receiving the favorable modification, but the state was still moving forward with the case to protect the rights of roughly 5,000 Utah homeowners who may have been illegally foreclosed on. Then, Shurtleff unilaterally dropped the case on Dec. 27, 2012.

An assistant attorney general working on the case e-mailed Shurtleff that day to ask why he’d dropped the case. In a reply e-mail, Shurtleff apologized, but said that “this has been a very complicated issue for John given Bell hosted a fundraiser for him in the subject home.”

It was a final twist in the hearing that shocked committee members like legislative-policy analyst Jerry Howe.

“So to hide a couple thousand in contributions, Mark Shurtleff threw 5,000 Utah homeowners under the bus to protect John Swallow?” Howe asked investigator Mintz.

“That does appear to be what motivated him,” Mintz said. 

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