Out of the Shadows | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

September 21, 2016 News » Cover Story

Out of the Shadows 

Former AG Mark Shurtleff on being radioactive, deliverance and medi-pot.

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The executives at Troutman Sanders were done. It was the end of May, in 2013, and the international law firm's partners, who had hired former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to work in their Washington, D.C., office for a starting salary of $550,000 a year and the prospect of a partnership, were tired of the negative press he was attracting.

It had begun in January, the same month he was hired, with a short-lived and much-pilloried federal probe into Shurtleff and his onetime campaign manager and handpicked successor, John Swallow. By May, the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office had announced an investigation into irregularities in Swallow's campaign finances—and a week later, local prosecutors said they were investigating both Swallow and Shurtleff in conjunction with the feds.

"Have all your stuff out of the office by tonight," Shurtleff says he was told.

Once among the most powerful men in Utah, a perennial name in talks about future governors and senators, Shurtleff's reputation was in ruins. Surgeries on his left knee following a brutal 2007 motorcycle accident had left him with a rolling limp and one leg an inch longer than the other. How easy it would be to fall in front of a subway train, he thought. He had insurance, after all. "Everybody knows I have screwed up legs," he says. "I could stumble. It's just easier to end it all—make it look like an accident."

He called his close friend, Lynne Ross, who had been named executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General the same month Shurtleff was anointed Utah's top lawyer in January 2000. He came over on the metro. "He was absolutely distraught," she recalls. "He was personally lower than I had ever seen a person." It took a while, Ross says, but Shurtleff eventually calmed down and went back to the firm to clear out his office.

Three and a half years later, 59-year-old Shurtleff believes his decision to lift himself back up on that day and begin the long fight against those who tainted his name has been validated—and that he has been vindicated. Many others believe the decision to dismiss all charges against Shurtleff, due in part to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling gutting bribery charges and accusations by his prosecutor that the feds wouldn't provide evidence, violating Shurtleff's constitutional rights, represents a miscarriage of justice. Either way, Shurtleff has hardly got off scot-free. The price he and his family have paid enduring a years-long massive corruption probe has left them picking up the pieces of their lives.

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Shurtleff's numerous friends "started popping off like flies," he says, as each new headline branded him ever deeper as someone accused of accepting gifts and political contributions from people his office was investigating. Those are accusations he steadfastly denies. Ross, however, remained resolutely loyal through the FBI searches of Shurtleff's and Swallow's homes, and the filing of multiple felony charges alleging pay-to-play and his arrest.

"It's a wrenching experience to go through and to watch," says Ross, a 67-year-old beltway veteran. She says she and many friends "were incredulous—shocked," when he was charged. "I think we were disbelieving that somebody like Mark could have done any of the things that he was accused of doing," she says. "It just seemed out of character."

Others were far from surprised. Local defense attorney Gregory G. Skordas, who unsuccessfully ran against Shurtleff for what would be the latter's second term, says what happened to Shurtleff is an age-old tale. "The year I ran against Shurtleff, he probably could have run for the Senate," Skordas says. "He was immensely popular. He was probably one of the most popular and powerful political figures in the state. He had a good gig; he just screwed it up. He played it wrong. But that's what happens with power—it corrupts."

On July 15, 2014, Shurtleff was charged with 10 felony counts of corruption (later reduced to six felonies and a misdemeanor by Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings), described in the initial charging document as including "multiple instances of witness tampering, obstructing justice, soliciting bribes, money laundering and accepting gifts by a public officer or public employee." Swallow, Shurtleff's successor whom an Independent House investigative committee said had put a "for sale" sign on the AG's office, was charged the same day with 11 felonies and two misdemeanors, including receiving or soliciting bribes, accepting gifts, evidence tampering and engaging in a pattern of unlawful conduct.

Two years later, after Shurtleff's defense team filed lengthy motions seeking dismissal of the case and challenging search warrant affidavits as highly questionable (see sidebar, right), on July 18, 2016, Rawlings "stood down" from prosecuting Shurtleff, moving to drop all charges.

News of the dismissal came via a text message from one of his attorneys. "Great news. Case dismissed. Bad news. Judge granted the state's motion. Not ours." That was bad news because it meant Shurtleff would not receive attorneys' fees from the state, leaving him owing $800,000. Now he and his lawyers are in negotiations with the state over a settlement, with the possibility of a civil suit looming in the background if they don't come to terms.

Skordas was disappointed rather than surprised by the way the case fizzled out. "To me it was a case the people should have heard," he says. "It deserved to be put before a jury and a judge, and let the evidence come out."

Shurtleff did the rounds, criticizing local media, prosecutor Sim Gill, the FBI and the Department of Public Safety, for constructing a "false narrative" that had ruined his and his family's life. He reserved praise for what he called the "ethical" handling of the case by Rawlings.

But it was hardly a victory lap. Somewhere in the back of his mind, there lurked the dying cries of Maitre Hauchecorne, the victim of a false allegation in Guy de Maupassant's "The Piece of String." Toward the end of the story, Maupassant writes that Hauchecorne "was dimly conscious that it was impossible to prove his innocence, his craftiness being so well known. He felt himself struck to the heart by the injustice of the suspicion." He told all and sundry he was innocent. But the more he denied it, Maupassant wrote, "the less he was believed." Finally he died, even in his last agonized moments crying out his truth.

Shurtleff says he doesn't want to become like Hauchecorne. "I've got to leave all that," he says. "If we can hold some people accountable and get ourselves secured financially," then, he says, that will be enough.

But he'll never be the connected and respected man he was. And that is clearly weighing on him. "It's hard to have your name slaughtered like that," says Shurtleff's wife of 35 years, M'Liss. The good he did "was never mentioned; he gave his heart and soul to the state of Utah."

While she's sure "he'd love to have his reputation back," if not that, M'Liss says, her husband would like to "be involved in helping whatever cause is up his sleeve, whatever is yanking his chain." Indeed, Shurtleff never really stopped doing that—even as his life tailspinned ever faster into disgrace and the possibility of up to 30 years behind bars.

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After Troutman fired him in the midst of what's been repeatedly billed as the biggest political scandal in Utah history, Shurtleff was stuck with a year-lease on his apartment in D.C. There were very few nights, he says, "where I didn't wake up, my skin on fire, prickly," caught up in a fight-or-flight anxiety attack.

He wasn't suffering alone. Annie Shurtleff, his 19-year-old daughter, says she doesn't think she's ever had a normal life, even before scandal touched her family. She recalls one Christmas when a group of polygamists were threatening to harm themselves in the backyard of her home so the children would find them. It had snowed hard that Christmas, M'Liss says with a rueful smile, but nevertheless Annie did not want to go out into the backyard until her father encouraged her. She stood by the door and looked out.

"Nope, no dead people," Annie said.

But nothing had prepared her for what she would face as the investigation into her father continued. At high school, teenagers would ask her "How does it feel to have your dad be a crook?" She felt constantly judged and thrown out of every social group. "I had nobody. I didn't have friends. I was alone," she says. "Nobody wanted to be attached to anybody whose father was going through this."

And then the FBI came.

Annie was in the back bedroom when the door flew open, hitting the wall, and men screamed at her to put her hands up. A red laser dot from a rifle scope appeared on her chest as she stood there, shaking. She ran to her brother down the hall, only to be torn away from him. "They told us not to hug or touch or talk," she says, and they warned her that if she couldn't quiet the family's dog, the agents would.

When she walked out into the street, reporters rushed up to question her.

Six weeks later, the armed men came for Shurtleff. At the Salt Lake County lock-up, he was greeted by Sheriff Jim Winder, photographed and placed in a cell. "All I've been about my whole life is law enforcement and public safety," Shurtleff says. Facing the cell's walls, he says, "was a humbling experience."


While some former AGs remained supportive, Shurtleff was asked not to attend any Attorneys General meetings, such as one in the winter of 2014 in Salt Lake City hosted by the Conference of Western Attorneys General. He also was a member of the Society of Attorneys General Emeritus, but they also made it clear they didn't want him involved anymore.

He kept some of his clients, working for the video gaming industry to combat legislation a New Jersey senator was bringing to restrict mature-rated games. But the scandal took its toll on his ability to bring on new clients, even as it scalded off, one by one, those that remained.

In early 2015, Shurtleff started his own law firm with the son in-law of his LDS bishop as a partner, with the intention of the young lawyer doing the legwork. Shurtleff posted a video offering his services as an attorney with images of the courthouse where his case was ongoing in the background.

His young partner ultimately went to work for the state. "We just weren't making it," Shurtleff says.

He signed up with a legal-referral service but the only cases he got were pro-bono, individuals in desperate legal situations with no money. His financial woes worsened as his only regular consultancy fees from a multi-level marketing business ended in 2015, after, he says, the chairman blamed their dropping stock price on Shurtleff's presence.

Since he couldn't get clients as an attorney, he decided to take advantage of his private status and go into business. That, too, proved challenging.

Long an advocate for medical marijuana after he learned firsthand how powerful opiate painkillers are in the wake of his motorcycle accident, Shurtleff tried to set up a medical marijuana business with a friend who made millions through online lending and a Utah scientist who had invented a 12-foot rotating metal circle for growing tomatoes that seemed it would be equally effective at growing medicinal weed. Shurtleff put together a multi-million-dollar deal with his friend's backing and found a property in California's Yucca Valley on which they made an offer. "It was perfect, a large building for an indoor grow," Shurtleff says. Just before they were to close the deal, the town's council voted to ban cultivation within city limits.

Undeterred, Shurtleff also worked with his brother Kevin, a chemist, inventor and teacher at Utah Valley University, on developing a mist inhaler called MicroMist Now. Their first inhaler mist was QuickNIC, which delivered an instant nicotine spray, that Shurtleff says was for smokers when they couldn't smoke or vape, but they couldn't get the money to market it. Shurtleff and his brother attended a counter-culture convention in Las Vegas where, he says, "there must have been 5,000 different bongs."

The pair also worked on a medical marijuana inhaler and went up to Oregon for research. As soon as he walked on a grower's property, he could smell the bud. He texted his wife, "We're not in Utah anymore," when he saw a giant bell jar full of bud next to the toaster in the kitchen. But Shurtleff's brother backed out because "he didn't feel good about it," Shurtleff says. "Of course, I had to support him."

Shurtleff says his current business venture is the closest yet he's got to success in the private sector. As a law student, he edited his law school's natural resources review, and he's maintained an interest in the environment. He hopes his expertise is going to pay dividends, as he's one of a "handful" of attorneys in the United States who are experts in carbon emissions and carbon-offset credits. Every ton of CO2 that a company removes from the atmosphere entitles it to one carbon offset credit, which it can then sell on an international exchange.

In late 2015, Shurtleff co-founded Carbon-Offset Brokers Inc., of which he owns 25 percent and for which he serves as general counsel. COBI seeks to help businesses with the potential to earn these credits by, for example, switching to energy-saving LED lights. Once the credits are sold, COBI splits the profits with the client. It's a highly complex, heavily regulated field involving verification processes and a registry which has to approve the sale, and can take several years before the credits are sold.

To speed up the process, COBI provides financing for companies to turn to solar power or LED lighting. COBI has 25 salespeople currently, each with a cell phone that records all calls, "making sure we're doing everything right," Shurtleff says.

The big clients he wants to land are healthcare facilities where "they are burning fluorescent lamps through that building 24/7." For now, though, he's focusing on methane-producing dairies, family gaming centers and car lots.

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As an AG, Shurtleff built a name for himself advocating for issues a Republican Mormon might be expected to avoid, such as hate crimes legislation, supporting same-sex marriage, media shield laws and pro-immigration reform. He welcomed the spotlight drawn by his maverick positions, enjoying local and national media attention.

As his criminal case grinded on, though, he was reduced to working far behind the scenes. That's what he did for State Senator Mark Madsen, who says Shurtleff reached out to him to offer help after Madsen took a public stand for legalizing medical marijuana in Utah. "I know he's been in touch with patients subjected to the terrorism that the government practices on patients who need cannabis," Madsen says, "and for whom modern medicine offers nothing else."

Shurtleff didn't want to "taint" Madsen's initiative by his public presence, but rather sought to provide contacts and resources the senator could draw on if needed, Madsen says. He continues, Shurtleff "was sensitive and humble enough to stand in the back. He realized he was radioactive and didn't want to harm an issue he cared about, so he stood on the sidelines and didn't look for any credit."

Shurtleff's current quixotic cause, which saw him fly to Washington, D.C., at the beginning of September, is one that was introduced to him by Jackson, Miss.-based personal injury attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr. The cause is Vieques, a tiny island just off Puerto Rico that Eaves, in his soft, lilting Southern accent calls, "paradise lost." While it boasts a landscape of mountains and lush terrain where wild Spanish horses roam, "the beauty is deceptive," Eaves says.

He's been suing the U.S. Navy since 1999 on behalf of 3,600 of the 9,000 inhabitants of the 134-square-mile island, which long doubled as one of the world's busiest bombing ranges. The environmental and health consequences of 60 years of bombing "ranging from napalm and depleted uranium," according to Eaves' firm, has led to "abnormally high rates of serious diseases and illnesses, birth defects and many other tragic problems." Puerto Rican figures from 2001 put the cancer rates as up 300 percent over the prior 20 years.

Eaves was introduced to Shurtleff by mutual friend and four-term Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Eaves told Shurtleff about his long-running fight with the U.S. Navy to get it to publicly recognize the harm it had done the islanders. He needed his help to make a case to Congress. Shurtleff had broken his foot, but nevertheless limped around the halls of power in D.C., meeting with members of the Utah delegation on the issue.

Shurtleff dug up old documents and facts that Eaves was unaware of, notably that the Puerto Rican government had sued the U.S. Navy in 1983 and settled the case with the commitment they would give the island back to the people when they left. Instead they turned it over to the Department of the Interior.

The former attorney general worked on getting a bill into the 2016 U.S. Congressional package addressing Puerto Rico's financial crisis to include a transfer of land for Vieques, but it was taken out by Democrats after environmentalists protested, he says. Since then, he's drafted a new bill seeking federal funds to pay off the lawsuit.

"I'm outraged what we did to these people and even more outraged no one will take care of it," Shurtleff says.

Outrage, though, doesn't pay. Not beyond expenses and the very distant possibility of a payoff somewhere down the line, at least. That's not the point, he says. "It's injustice and it needs to be fixed."


For all the outsized political and legal drama that Shurtleff has lived through in the media and the courts, many of the problems he currently faces are the sorts of trials and tragedies that so many other families deal with. While he has continued to pursue business start-ups and working on causes that matter to him, income to support his family has long since dried up.

In 2015, for the first time, he went to church for help. "I'd never thought we'd have to take welfare money from the LDS Church," he says. With his bishop, he obtained a storehouse form to request what they needed, but when he took it home, his wife observed that there was nothing on it. He told her he didn't want to take advantage. She sat down with the Relief Society president and by the end had enough food in the freezer to last them a month.

Now they face foreclosure on their Sandy home. Shurtleff recently cashed out the last of his retirement fund. After that, he says, he has nothing left.

Meanwhile, he and his wife have petitioned the Third District Court for guardianship of their 2-year-old granddaughter, River. River's mother, their 24-year-old daughter Danielle, says she's struggling with personal problems and her daughter "needs a stable home." She describes herself as someone who, having been adopted, has long had "huge abandonment issues. I'd wake up as a child and be terrified my parents had gone." While she has gone through what she calls "my mid-life crisis," away from her parents and siblings, so the rest of her family has gone through her father being subjected to a criminal investigation and prosecution. It adds to a sense of estrangement, she says.

"We're all somebody we used to be," she says.


While Shurtleff says he was vindicated by the dismissal, the press did not take kindly to the result. The Salt Lake Tribune's opinion page stated that Shurtleff had brought "dishonor" to his office, citing the independent House investigation of John Swallow, which had also made serious allegations about Shurtleff's handling of a case involving Bank of America. Shurtleff says the committee got its facts wrong.

All he ever wanted to do, he says, was be what his father raised him to be, a public servant who will represent the interests of the people. "To then be accused of the opposite of that is very hard to deal with," he says.

Defense attorney Skordas and Shurtleff became friends after the latter won his second term, but it ultimately turned awkward, Skordas says. The saddest thing to him, he says, is that "I don't think he learned anything. Here is a disgraced former attorney general, and he's still bopping around like he could run for office tomorrow and win. It hasn't hit him yet. It's done. It's over."

Shurtleff says he has no plans to return to politics, but still wants to be involved in the world of attorneys general. Post-dismissal, he renewed his membership to SAGE, the association for former attorneys general. "I'm very excited to attend the next meeting," he says.

The repercussions of being under law enforcement's scrutiny still linger, though. Annie Shurtleff shakes when she relives the FBI serving the search warrant. "Every time I hear the doorbell ring, I'm afraid to answer," she says. If she sees an unfamiliar car in the street, she does a double-take. "No one should have to live that way. No one should have to be afraid to live in their house and have people barging in, pointing guns at you."

Shurtleff expects the corruption probe to dog him for a long time. He talks about a business offer that was all but signed and delivered, nixed two days later by a board member of the company who Googled his name.

"I think we're a strong family," Annie says, "and that's what we're going to rebuild on, faith in each other, love for each other. Other people don't get this opportunity. I think we're very blessed and fortunate. And we'll go on from there."

In one of his more despondent moments, Shurtleff went to a Georgetown tattoo parlor and had the face of lady justice and the motto in Latin, "The people's good is the highest law," tattooed on his upper arm. He didn't like the artist's rendition of a blindfolded, scowling woman.

"But now it rings true," he says. "Injustice pisses me off."

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