Par For The Course | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 15, 2013 News » Cover Story

Par For The Course 

Utah's attorneys general, past and present, learn the high cost of a free golf vacation

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Many of us enjoy vacation “bragging rights” and happily post photos of landmarks and the meals we ate on Facebook. There are three people, however, who likely wish the news of their 2009 California vacation would go away—for good. After City Weekly broke the story about a vacation taken by former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, his then-chief fundraiser John Swallow and “corporate fix-it man” Tim Lawson at a luxury Newport Beach resort, the story was picked up by numerous local news outlets and sparked renewed calls for investigations and impeachment of Utah’s current attorney general, John Swallow.

In a series of interviews at Summit County Jail and Utah State Prison in Draper, convicted white-collar criminal Marc Jenson told City Weekly that he had hired Tim Lawson—Mark Shurtleff’s friend and confidant, who earned big bucks by offering troubled business owners access to Shurtleff—to get in Shurtleff’s good graces. A hard-money lender from Holladay with a criminal record, Jenson would need the stamp of approval from people in high places so he could develop an exclusive ski resort at Elk Meadows near Beaver.

Utah County political “fixer” Tim Lawson claimed to have arranged the California vacation. Lawson says he saw nothing wrong in taking Shurtleff and Swallow to the Pelican Hill resort, especially since he “paid” for the trip (although Jenson appears to have actually footed the bill as a perk he gave Lawson for his consulting services). Lawson says Jenson’s case had been adjudicated, with Jenson accepting a plea deal wherein he agreed to pay his victims $4.1 million by 2010 or else face serious jail time.

While they were guests at the villa in California, Jenson says, he met personally with Shurtleff, and Shurtleff offered Jenson future “protection.” Not only did Jenson believe that Shurtleff had his back, but another in Jenson’s circle, Park City businessman Mark Robbins—a frequent guest at Pelican Hill resort—also appears to have benefited from the services of Lawson and the good will of the state’s attorney general.

An Investor Scorned
Mark Robbins has operated numerous companies and partnerships where he’s become known for structured investments and stock lending. Until recently, he’s had his fingers in many pies. He worked with Jenson and other investors in the complicated and ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy the Mongoose bicycle company that resulted in Jenson’s securities-fraud charges.

He, along with his company Peninsula Advisors, helped broker the $100 million sale of Canyons Resort to Talisker in 2007. He also was a principal of Whitewater VII Holdings, which was planning a transit-oriented development in Draper.

In late 2008, facing a debt collection lawsuit totaling over $2 million dollars, Robbins vanished from the scene; former UTA board member Terry Diehl, who would later claim bankruptcy, then took over Whitewater VII.

Among those allegedly stung by Robbins was Darl McBride, the former CEO of Utah software company SCO, who claimed that Robbins borrowed several hundred thousand dollars from him while offering to arrange for long-term financing for McBride’s software company. Robbins vanished before settling up with McBride, McBride says.

McBride wanted to see Robbins brought before a judge and was using both the media and the Web to launch a campaign against Robbins.

In late spring 2009, Tim Lawson (mentioned in several City Weekly stories, including a Feb. 2, 2011, cover story titled “The Fix-It Man”) contacted McBride and told him to lay off Robbins, McBride says. Following that, McBride says, Shurtleff met with him and tried to end McBride’s online crusade against Robbins by offering to see if Marc Jenson could raise money to pay McBride back.

City Weekly has now learned that the meeting between Shurtleff and McBride is part of an active federal investigation.

White Water Rapids
Before Shurtleff arrived at Pelican Hill resort in 2009, Jenson says, Shurtleff was impressed with Jenson’s wealthy network of friends and asked Jenson to introduce him to them. At the time, Shurtleff was gearing up for his campaign race against Utah’s U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and needed campaign donations. According to Jenson, Shurtleff and Swallow met with Jenson’s friends, including Mark Robbins, during their visit at Pelican Hill resort in California.

In 2008 and early 2009, Robbins planned to develop property around a Draper FrontRunner transit station with his Whitewater Holdings VII company. But before he could put those plans in motion, on Nov. 26, 2008, 3rd District Court Judge Sandra Peuler issued a civil judgment naming Robbins as a debtor in a case where his company had accepted shares in an Australian mining company as collateral in a stock-loan agreement.

Court documents say that Robbins’ company broke the loan agreement and sold the company shares without prior approval. The November 2008 judgment ordered Robbins to pay $2.3 million to his creditors. The judgment also identified dozens of companies Robbins had a hand in that were liable for paying the judgment, including Whitewater VII.

According to news accounts, UTA board member Terry Diehl began working for Whitewater VII in September 2008 and became the owner by December 2008. A year later, after UTA officially selected the 12800 South site as a FrontRunner station, Diehl sold the development rights for an undisclosed sum.

In response to a March 2009 KSL story about why Robbins chose to extricate himself from the Whitewater VII project, Robbins simply stated, “My personal financial situation has been impacted by the global financial crisis to a degree that I could not continue with the development.”

Richer Than God
Around the same time, software company CEO Darl McBride also claimed to have been victimized by Robbins. He would file a debt-collection lawsuit against Robbins in March 2009 for a deal that went down in late 2008.

At the time, McBride’s company, SCO, had been involved in a protracted lawsuit with IBM and was looking for a loan to keep the company afloat until the lawsuit was settled. McBride says that Robbins flew around in a corporate jet and liked to “pass himself off as being richer than God.”

McBride says that Robbins’ company agreed to commit to long-term capital financing. McBride says that before the financing was in place, Robbins asked McBride for several hundred thousand dollars in what was to be a short-term loan.

Robbins declined to be interviewed for this story but replied to questions through his attorney, James Nesland. Robbins says he owes nothing to McBride. “I categorically deny that I or any of my companies owes Darl McBride anything. There is no documentation that I owe him $300,000 in short-term loans or that my company committed to finance $5 million or any other amount for him,because those transactions and commitments never happened.”

McBride says that after he loaned money to Robbins, he found out that Robbins, a Park City resident, had left the state and was wanted on a warrant to appear in court on the civil debt-collection judgment issued in the case with the Australian mining company. The bench warrant was later vacated, and Robbins’ company, American Institutional Partners, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009.

McBride complained to the Attorney General’s Office about Robbins but says he got the “cold shoulder,” so he decided to take his debt-collection battle online. He created the persona of the “SkyLine Cowboy” and a website listing information about Robbins and offering rewards for information about Robbins’ whereabouts so that he could serve Robbins with court papers.

“It was literally like bounty hunting in the Old West,” McBride says.

McBride’s unorthodox tactics quickly gained the attention of Tim Lawson who, McBride says, told him to take down his website—or else.

“Tim Lawson calls me up and he’s just going ballistic, threatening me and saying he was going to use his firearm against me and that he had Polynesian friends that were going to bust me up,” McBride says. “It was just one threat after another.”

Though Lawson disputes that he threatened to send other people to “bust up” McBride, he says he did threaten McBride because McBride’s bounty hunting could have harmed Robbins’ wife and kids. “You don’t go after somebody’s family like that,” Lawson says, adding that “people like that should be taken out and shot.”

McBride says that Lawson was able to arrange a breakfast meeting with Shurtleff in early May 2009, at Mimi’s Café in Murray. At the meeting, McBride says, Shurtleff urged him to lay off Robbins and said he’d have a better chance of getting his money back if he did. Further, McBride says, Shurtleff said he was going to see Marc Jenson in the next few days and suggested he might be able to see if Jenson would help raise $2 million to pay off McBride’s losses and provide some of the capital Robbins allegedly had committed to raise for McBride.

McBride did not immediately back down from his digital bounty hunting but says he didn’t hear from Shurtleff or Lawson again after the breakfast meeting. In June 2009, he received a civil judgment on a $109,627 deal done in Robbins’ wife’s name. Thanks to his website, McBride says, he got a tip that Robbins was at Pelican Hill and was able to serve papers on Robbins’ wife there and later collect on that debt.

Click below to read selections from a transcript of a July 2, 2009, creditors meeting, during which McBride was interviewed about Robbins. Or download the full transcripts: Part 1 (relevant pages 1-54 and 100-109) and Part 2 (relevant pages 55-99).

McBride was shocked enough by his meeting with Shurtleff that he says he told the FBI about it.

Through his attorney, Robbins stated that “I have never in my entire life asked any Utah official to intercede on my behalf for anything, including Mark Shurtleff, John Swallow or any government official.”

He likewise denies paying Lawson for his alleged involvement. Lawson says he called McBride not because Robbins’ was paying him but because sticking up for Robbins’ family was simply the right thing to do.

Robbins stresses that his disputes with creditors were civil matters. “I’ve never been involved with any criminal proceedings in my life,” Robbins writes.

Shurtleff, now a private attorney at the Washington, D.C., firm Troutman Sanders, declined to comment for this story.

Good Cop/Bad Cop
The attorney general is often referred to as the state’s top cop. And for McBride, Shurtleff was simply playing “good cop” in trying to get him to back off Robbins, especially after Lawson’s bad-cop routine included threats of violence.

Shurtleff’s “whole objective of this two-hour breakfast meeting was to essentially say: ‘Back off Robbins—this [digital bounty hunting] is really hurting his business prospects,’ ” McBride says. “I just remember sitting there looking at him like, ‘Mark, you are the top lawman, he has stolen my money and millions from other people, and you are sitting here protecting him?’ ”

California Schemin’
A political insider and a convicted felon host the former attorney general at a luxury resort, hoping to win him over.

It could be a lead-in for a joke: A Utah attorney general, his fundraiser and a political toady travel to a posh resort in Newport Beach, Calif., where their fun-in-the-sun trip is allegedly paid for by a white-collar criminal. While it sounds like a whopper of a tale told over a martini, according to receipts and invoices given to City Weekly, two of these bizarre wingdings really did take place.

In May and June of 2009, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and his then-chief fundraiser (now attorney general) John Swallow enjoyed vacations at the luxurious Pelican Hill golf resort. A Utah County political operative named Tim Lawson admits that he arranged the trips. As detailed in previous stories, Lawson’s friendship with Shurtleff enabled him to build a lucrative consulting practice, wherein he arranged for business owners with regulatory troubles to have access to Utah’s attorney general.

Lawson’s client at this time was a hard-money lender from Holladay named Marc Jenson. After fighting multiple securities fraud charges since 2005, Jenson accepted a plea deal in 2008 and agreed to pay restitution to a pair of men he’d allegedly defrauded out of $4.1 million in investments.

Jenson felt the AG’s office had unfairly targeted him, since a former business associate of Jenson’s—allegedly a supporter of Shurtleff’s—had complained about him directly to Shurtleff, who Jenson claims then directed his staff to investigate and charge him. Jenson felt burned by his former associate and hired Lawson to help him repair his reputation with influential members of government, including Shurtleff.

Roughly a year after he accepted his plea deal, Jenson played host to Shurtleff, Lawson and Swallow in California.

Marc Jenson is now in prison for violating the restitution terms of his 2008 plea in abeyance. Serving a possible 10-year prison sentence (of which he has now served 21 months), Jenson spoke to City Weekly because he feels he was exploited by the Attorney General’s Office. He offered copies of invoices and receipts that show the Utah men did stay at Pelican Hill as his guests. He says Lawson made numerous visits to the resort, including two trips when he brought along Shurtleff and Swallow. Swallow himself took a third trip to Pelican Hill, without Shurtleff, bringing his wife along instead.

How They Remember It
Each person recalls the junkets differently. For Tim Lawson, the trips were primarily for R&R, but it was also an opportunity to bring Shurtleff and Jenson together.

Lawson insists he paid for the trips—which included several nights in an exclusive villa, golfing and dining—since the lodging and dining charges were a perk Lawson earned for his consulting work for Jenson.

For Shurtleff, Lawson says, the trips were a vacation where he could work on his historical novel, Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story, and relax before he pushed ahead on what turned out to be a short-lived run for U.S. Senate.

Shurtleff is now a private attorney with the law firm of Troutman Sanders in Washington, D.C. He declined to be interviewed for the story but did say he was told the expenses at Pelican Hill were paid for by Lawson. “I never received any compensation, remuneration whatsoever from anyone or any company during my 12 years as A.G.—period.”

Jenson recalls that he met Shurtleff at the resort a few times, including for dinner. He also remembers that Swallow and Lawson discussed holding a fundraiser for Shurtleff’s Senate campaign at the California villa, but Lawson denies any fundraising took place.

John Swallow declined to comment for this story, although Lawson says Swallow was just there for a vacation. “[Swallow] could be there taking bribes or doing whatever he wants to, it doesn’t matter—he was a private citizen,” Lawson says.

In 2009, Swallow was not a state employee, so he was free to enjoy an all-expense paid trip with no concern over impropriety. All the same, Jenson says he thought it was important to court Swallow because he had been told that Swallow was Shurtleff’s “heir apparent.”

Work For a Fixer
Marc Jenson’s problems with the Attorney General’s Office go back to 2005, when the office first filed charges against him. Jenson claims a jilted business partner helped trigger what he calls a biased investigation on a deal he’d helped orchestrate that fell apart. The deal involved acquiring loans from several lenders to help a business partner make a bid on the Wisconsin-based Mongoose bicycle company.

Back then, Lawson says, Shurtleff was no fan of Jenson’s. “Shurtleff tried to tell me for a year and half that [Jenson] was a bad guy and that I needed to get away from him,” Lawson says.

That initial cold shoulder warmed after Lawson took Jenson on as a client. Jenson says Lawson worked for him starting in late 2007 or early 2008 and continuing through late 2009.

For roughly two years, Lawson says, he worked at trying to improve Jenson’s credibility with state officials and others. Overall, Lawson estimates, he was paid “a couple hundred thousand dollars … give or take.”

An investigator with the Attorney General’s Office audited Jenson’s bank account from October 2008 to September 2010. According to those records, Jenson’s bank account lists $114,300 deposited into Lawson’s Apple Dumpling Gang Investments and another $8,000 into Lawson’s now-defunct hovercraft company, Slipstream International.

Jenson says Lawson invited himself and his guests—Shurtleff and Swallow—back for a second visit in June 2009 when Shurtleff and Swallow stayed four or five days at Jenson’s $1,200-per-night villa. Lawson insists he covered the group’s expenses, but documents show that some expenses were charged directly to Jenson’s account, such as a $470 golf and caddy package receipt dated May 5, 2009, which named Shurtleff as the guest and was billed to Jenson’s account.

Even though Lawson acknowledges he was working on Jenson’s behalf—including helping Jenson with his problems with the state—he insists there wasn’t a conflict of interest, because Jenson never gave money or funds directly to Shurtleff. Jenson does say that while the group was in California, he arranged to have Shurtleff meet a number of wealthy associates of his, though he could not say affirmatively if they donated to his campaign or not.

So, did Marc Jenson get what he paid Lawson for? Jenson says that on the few occasions he met with Shurtleff at the resort, including for dinner, “I was implicitly promised and guaranteed protection—that’s what I expected.” Jenson says Shurtleff claimed to have national connections that could help Jenson if he got in trouble in California. Jenson says Shurtleff noted that if he were elected to the U.S. Senate, “it would be even better” for Jenson.

Shurtleff would not respond to Jenson’s claims. “Keep in mind of who you’re talking to and what we prosecuted him for,” Shurtleff says.

The Hollywood Connection
When he visited the resort with Shurtleff and Lawson in May and June 2009, John Swallow was a private citizen and had not yet been appointed the chief deputy of the Attorney General’s Office. He was Shurtleff’s campaign fundraiser, however.

Swallow visited the resort a third time with his wife in July 2009. His signature appears on a June 6, 2009, receipt for $228 on Jenson’s account for a “terra-stone massage”; in July, when he brought his wife, documents show they received two massages at the resort worth $456 combined, also charged to Jenson’s account.

Paul Ruffino, a former sales director of the Pelican Hill resort, remembers meeting with Lawson and Swallow.

“Lawson and the Swallow guy, they wanted me to host like a fundraising event for Shurtleff in Orange County and include some show-business people to come [the event],” since the villa often courts Hollywood celebrities and since the men knew Ruffino had previously been the president of the Orange County Film Commission, Ruffino says.

Ruffino says he refused to help, calling Lawson “a blowhard.” Lawson dismisses Ruffino’s comments as “B.S.”

“There was no talk of fundraising,” Lawson says. “The only things we talked about were family, fun, golfing and Mark’s new book.”

Shurtleff dropped out of the Senate race in October 2009. In December of that year, Swallow became the chief deputy attorney general. After Shurtleff was no longer in the running for the U.S. Senate, Jenson says, Shurtleff distanced himself from Jenson.

Around that time, Jenson says, he stopped paying money to Lawson, because he felt that Lawson had stopped being useful. But when he stopped making payments, Jenson says, Lawson threatened to use his connections to have him thrown in prison. When asked about that claim, Lawson would only respond by saying, “He’s in prison, and there’s a reason why he’s there.”

click to enlarge art17547.jpg

Unhappy Customer
In 2011, Jenson faced a tough sentencing when he had not paid the court-ordered restitution. Jenson did attempt to offer his two victims a home in Sun Valley, Idaho, but the deal was rejected, as the home, once valued at $8 million, had become indebted and lacked equity to cover restitution.

At his Nov. 4, 2011, sentencing hearing, the Attorney General’s Office showed that Jenson had spent $9 million, living a life of luxury, during the time he was supposed to be paying restitution. Jenson says he’d spent the time trying to advance the Mount Holly ski development, where he hoped to turn an old resort in Beaver into a $3.5 billion luxury resort and development. When that deal fell through, the state charged Jenson and his brother with multiple counts of securities fraud on the Mount Holly case.

While Jenson says he’s an “innocent man who’s spent 20 months in jail,” he feels he was targeted by the attorney general’s office and admits he is guilty of getting too close to Swallow, Shurtleff and Lawson.

“I gave money to Tim Lawson because he was very close to Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, and because Shurtleff told me Swallow was his hand-picked successor,” Jenson says.

Lawson says Jenson is simply trying to push blame off onto others, citing his inability to pay restitution as proof of his character.

“He gave the judge a promise to pay, and it was like four years, and he never paid one penny! So he went to prison, that was the deal he had,” Lawson says with a pause before adding, “Now, he always took care of me …”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on on May 8, 2013

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