Shurtleff, Swallow, & Bank of America – The Campaign Donations That Left Utah Homeowners Out in the Cold

Former Republican Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff (left) and John Swallow (right). Mugshots via Salt Lake County
Former Republican Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff (left) and John Swallow (right). Mugshots via Salt Lake County

As you may have heard, former Republican Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff were arrested on numerous felony charges Tuesday morning. One of the charges in particular should be egregious to the average Utahn—that Shurtleff took campaign contributions rather than protecting homeowners from illegal home foreclosure practices.

It is alleged that Shurtleff improperly interceded on behalf of Tim and Jennifer Bell in a dispute with Bank of America and two subsidiaries: Countrywide Bank and Recon Trust Company. Timothy Bell is mentioned previously in the charges for having introduced Dr. Edward Donner to the Jenson brothers and their ill-fated Mount Holly Project.

According to the charges filed against Mr. Shurtleff and Mr. Swallow, here’s what happened:

March, 2011: The Bells filed a federal lawsuit against Bank of America and the related subsidiaries for illegally foreclosing on their home in Holladay. In the suit, the Bells claim Bank of America improperly gave them approval for a mortgage refinance loan, knowing that the Bells income was too low to be able to pay it back.

March, 2012: Judge Bruce Jenkins denies Bank of America’s motion to dismiss the case—giving hope to thousands of other Utahns who were also facing  similar foreclosures. Assistant Attorney General Jerry Jensen states that this is the strongest case the state has against illegal foreclosures, and that the AG’s office intends to support the Bell’s case against Bank of America.

June, 2012: Mr. Bell contacts John Swallow’s campaign for Attorney General, and offers to host a fundraiser for Swallow on August 12th. On August 7th, Shurtleff and then-Chief Deputy Attorney General Swallow met with lobbyists from Bank of America to discuss the Bell case. This discussion was held without notifying Mr. Jensen, who was then spearheading the case on behalf of the state.

After this meeting, Bank of America representatives emailed Swallow, asking for more time to respond to the state’s motions. This request, despite being contrary to the state’s interests, was honored by Swallow.

Swallow says that he had no idea that the Bells who proposed the Swallow fundraiser were the same Bells who were involved in the state’s suit. Additionally, the Swallow staff had asked the Bells to list the fundraiser as only a $15,000 in-kind donation, instead of the $28,000 it actually cost. When Mr. Bell later tried to give additional money to Swallow’s race, the campaign staff declined the funds but asked him to direct other donations through a secondary source (such as a dark money super pac).

During the Swallow investigation, an internal campaign email was discovered stating that “Tim is giving $5k through some other means,” showing a rather blatant attempt to get around Utah’s already infamously lax campaign finance laws, and avoid the appearance that the office could be bought.

Later that week, Mr. Bell attended another fundraiser with Swallow’s staff, internally communicating that since his ticket was paid for by a friend they would not have to list Bell as a contributor to that event.

Soon after, Bell and Swallow met to discuss his case.

This appears to be a clear indication of paying for access, as a campaign aide for Swallow wrote in response to the meeting request that “John is considering the best approach to everything. He wants to make sure that whatever he does isn’t going to look bad.” 

In late August of 2012, Swallow again met with Bank of America lobbyists without informing other AG office staff who were actually handling the case. Following this meeting, Swallow told Assistant Attorney General Brian Farr, who had taken over the state’s interests in the case from Jensen, to grant Bank of America’s request to delay deadlines.

Soon after this meeting, the Swallow campaign again received donations from people and companies connected to the Bells. Following these fresh donations, Swallow took it upon himself to meet with a Bank of America representative—again without informing those who were being paid by the state to actually handle the case, and who would be most familiar with its details and possible ramifications.

Upon hearing of these meetings between Swallow and Bank of America, Judge Jenkins ordered both sides to reveal the content of these meetings. Not to be deterred by a judge showing displeasure in interference, Swallow decided to speak with Tim Bell directly.

The six minute conversation that occurred on October 1st was not recorded, but its content can be presumed based on the events that happened next. Mr. Bell asked Swallow, via text message, to “reach out to your BofA contacts” and, two days later, Bank of America suddenly reversed itself after two years and granted a loan to the individual who had funneled thousands of dollars to the Swallow campaign. This loan modification effectively cut $1.13 million dollars from the Bell mortgage.

The Bells weren’t the only ones who walked away happy, it appears the biggest winner was Bank of America. Following his election in November, 2012, Swallow wasted no time expressing to his new staff that his priorities were not to pursue Bank of America, despite the desperate need by Utah homeowners facing similar foreclosures for the case to move forward.

According to Farr, Mr. Swallow was reportedly ‘troubled’ that if the office went forward, it would ‘impugn [Swallow’s] integrity’ given his apparent commitment that the claims asserted by the State would be dismissed if the Bells were allowed to settle their claims.

Perhaps in an effort to protect his newly elected protégé, or possibly seeing a way to score easy points with a large future client, in mid-December the outgoing AG Mark Shurtleff hamstrung his colleagues by reaching a settlement with Bank of America wherein no other illegal foreclosures would be contested by the State of Utah. Once again, the office failed to inform the actual lawyers who had done the work on the Bank of America case.

Shurtleff later clarified his reasoning in an internal email, stating that the Bank of America case was becoming a very complicated issue for John [Swallow] given Bell hosted a fundraiser for him in the subject’s home, and Bell is also a person of interest in a fraud matter we are investigating,” (referring to the Mount Holly fiasco, which the Bells were later found to not be complaisant in). Shurtleff continued, I felt that, given those facts and the settlement with Bell, as well as the fact that Jenkins’s lengthy ruling on the Motion to Dismiss is before the Tenth Circuit, that it was best for Utah and the Office of the AG to not go forward. Really sorry to disappoint.”

It appears that Shurtleff, like Swallow, was willing to sacrifice the average Utahns who were relying on a win against Bank of America to help their own cases of illegal foreclosures on their homes, in order to protect those who were willing to pay for the privilege of access the office. The sudden and unilateral reversal of the state’s position by Shurtleff was brought to light by a Salt Lake Tribune article published just days before Shurtleff  officially left office and Swallow was sworn in.

This Tribune article also notes that after leaving office, Shurtleff started a new job at a major D.C. law firm, one of whose biggest clients was Bank of America.

Following his swearing in, Swallow allegedly attempted to bury any evidence of the entire set of events by first asking the Bells to amend their reported campaign contribution from $15,000 (actually $28,000) to $1,000. In May of 2013, Swallow would also ask his campaign staff to refund the Bells any money spent on his campaign for AG. No refund was ever provided, but if it had this effectively would have turned the Bells initial investment of several thousand dollars into an interest free loan that netted them a return of more than 2100% in their sweet deal from Bank of America—while hundreds of other Utah families who were caught up in the shady mortgage foreclosure practices were left out in the cold.

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