Tuesday, October 20, 2015

AG Records Show Former Ogden Councilman Laundered Envision Ogden Donations

Contact:  Dan Schroeder, 801-xxx-xxxx, dvs1444@gmail.com

Records recently released by the Utah Attorney General’s office clearly show what local activists long suspected:  that the mysterious entity Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate, which was used to hide the origin of more than $20,000 in campaign contributions during Ogden’s 2007 municipal election, was operated by Blain Johnson, the local real estate attorney who was elected to the city council in that race.

The newly released records include copies of the five canceled checks from Envision Ogden, an organization founded in early 2007, to FNURE.  Johnson’s signature is clearly visible on the backs of three of these checks, indicating that he personally endorsed the checks on behalf of FNURE.  No signature is visible on the backs of the other two checks, but all five were deposited at Key Bank, where Johnson also deposited an earlier check written directly from Envision Ogden to his own campaign.

Of the FNURE funds, $10,990 was then passed on to Johnson’s campaign, while $9,700 went to council candidate Royal Eccles.  Johnson served on the council for two years before stepping down at the end of 2009; Eccles was defeated in 2007 by incumbent council member Amy Wicks.

In their financial disclosure statements filed with the city during the 2007 campaign season, both Johnson and Eccles listed only FNURE as the origin of these funds.  Johnson listed the address of FNURE as 4723 Harrison Blvd., in the same building where he then worked as a partner with the law firm Smith Knowles.

Envision Ogden was headed by local realtor Abraham Shreve, ostensibly to promote business and recreation in the Ogden area.  With considerable help from then-mayor Matthew Godfrey, the organization held two large fundraising events that year and raised over $87,000, mostly from local businesses.  Although Shreve later stated that it was always Envision Ogden’s intent to get involved in local politics, Envision Ogden did not register as a political organization with the state or the IRS until the following year, and none of its contributors seem to have been aware of its political nature.

The five payments from Envision Ogden to FNURE first came to light in early 2009, when local activist Dan Schroeder found them listed on Envision Ogden’s belatedly filed IRS disclosures.  Schroeder then filed a complaint with City Attorney Gary Williams, who allowed Johnson and Eccles to amend their financial disclosure statements to indicate that the FNURE funds actually came from Envision Ogden.  Williams, who was appointed by Godfrey, then pronounced the problem “cured” and took no further action.  

In news articles covering these events, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Johnson could not “come up with the names of anyone associated with [FNURE]”, while the Ogden Standard-Examiner reported that “Johnson said FNURE was established by some employees of a title company who have an office in the building where he works, but declined to identify the employees or the firm.”

As a result of these press reports, the Utah State Bureau of Investigation opened a criminal investigation of possible “financial fraud” and “public corruption” in May 2009.  During the SBI investigation, both Shreve and Envision Ogden treasurer Jeff Lucas told the investigator that FNURE was connected to Johnson.

The investigation was later transferred to the Utah Attorney General’s office, which obtained Envision Ogden’s bank records through a subpoena to Wells Fargo Bank.  After reviewing those records, the Attorney General closed the investigation without bringing any charges in March 2011.

As soon as the investigation was closed, Schroeder filed a government records request for the Attorney General’s investigation records, including the bank records.  A lengthy administrative and legal battle ensued over access to the records, culminating in the Utah Supreme Court’s August decision that ordered the records’ release.

Besides the canceled FNURE checks, the released records help fill in a few other details about Envision Ogden’s activities:

* Envision Ogden’s Business Account Application with Wells Fargo Bank indicates that the account was opened by Lucas in January 2007, and that he identified Envision Ogden as a “Political Action Group”.  It also shows that although he provided personal identification, he provided no documents to verify Envision Ogden’s existence.

* The bank records include a February 2008 deposit of 19 checks, each for $100, that were written during mid-2007.  Most of these checks were from businesses, and several were made out to Amer Sports or to Envision Ogden at Amer’s address.  These contributions are consistent with a solicitation that went out in June 2007, asking businesses to contribute $100 in return for a listing in a relocation handbook to be provided to Amer employees.  The solicitation stated that contributions should be sent to Cindy Patterson, who was working for Amer at the time.  Patterson’s husband is John Patterson, who was then Ogden’s chief administrative officer.

* The bank records also include 18 checks, ranging from $32 to $108 and totaling $1558, written to individuals on or around the date of the November 2007 election.  Most of these checks have the notation “campaign help” or “campaign support”.  Two other checks from October 2007, each for $100, are for campaign signs.  Together with Envision Ogden’s previously reported political expenditures, these payments bring its total political expenditures to more than $34,000.  (The other political expenditures were to SOS staffing for election day help, to 2008 legislative candidate Jeremy Peterson, and to the Utah Republican Party.)  Nearly all the rest of Envision Ogden’s funds were paid to cover expenses of its two fundraising events and to develop its web site.

* Finally, the bank records include a $6047 check to Envision Ogden, deposited on October 10, 2007, from the Ben Lomond Hotel.  The amount and date of this check match those of a contribution that Envision Ogden had previously reported from UBS Financial Services.  UBS told the SBI investigator that its internal protocols would not allow it to contribute directly to Envision Ogden, so it wrote a check for $6047 to the Ben Lomond Hotel instead, supposedly to reimburse expenses of one of Envision Ogden’s fundraising events.  While it had previously appeared that Envision Ogden might have simply deposited the UBS check into its own account, it is now apparent that the Ben Lomond Hotel played an active role in this questionable transfer of funds.

On the other hand, the newly released records shed little light on the workings of the Utah Attorney General’s office.  There is no clear indication of what the AG investigator was looking for in the bank records, or of why the investigation was closed soon after the bank records had been reviewed.  There is no indication of why the investigator never questioned Johnson or Eccles or Godfrey, or why no further attempt was made to question Shreve.  And there is no indication of why these records were withheld from the public for more than four years after the investigation was closed, necessitating a lengthy administrative battle, a lawsuit, and an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court to obtain their release.


AGRecordsProvided Oct2015

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