|A.G. denies political pressure swayed Koerber case|
|Alleged scheme » Office says there wasn't enough evidence; feds then took the case.|
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
|Updated:05/29/2009 09:26:52 PM MDT|
The Utah Attorney General's Office declined to take action in late 2007 against Rick Koerber, the "Free Capitalist" charged this week with running a massive Ponzi scheme, but officials from the office say the decision had nothing to do with pressure from Koerber or a state lawmaker.
The Utah Division of Securities, which had been investigating Koerber's complex web of businesses, prepared a civil complaint against the Alpine businessman at the end of 2007 and took it to Kirk Torgensen, the chief deputy at the attorney general's office, for screening.
"They declined to file the case," said Francine Giani, director of the Utah Department of Commerce.
Torgensen said the information given the attorney general didn't have the supporting evidence that would have been needed to file the complaint.
"All we had presented to us at that point was a bare-bones complaint," he said. "What we specifically requested was all the evidence and information to support each of the allegations in the complaint. ... Had that follow-up information been provided, we would have proceeded on the case in a normal course of business."
Koerber said he was relieved when he heard the attorney general's office had decided not to file the case. "I figured, finally, somebody with some common sense," he said.
Instead, Giani said she made the decision to take the information the division had gathered and turn it over to the U.S. Attorney's office, which announced a criminal indictment against Koerber this week.
The decision not to pursue the civil complaint came on the heels of a series of meetings that Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, arranged with several powerful officials, including then-House Speaker Greg Curtis, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Torgensen and several other state lawmakers.
It also came shortly after the legislative auditor -- at the request of Wimmer and Rep. Jim Bird, R-Sandy -- had launched an audit of the securities division.
Mark Pugsley, a Salt Lake City attorney who frequently battles the division and until recently served on the division's advisory board, said individuals in the division have told him that there was considerable political weight thrown behind Koerber.
"There were political pressures as I understand it that were brought to bear with regard to that case and Mr. Koerber is connected and involved politically and I think he used those contacts he had to put pressure on the state to drop the case," Pugsley said.
In an interview Friday, Koerber said he never asked Shurtleff or Curtis for favors, but he wanted the government to be fair and Shurtleff assured Koerber his office would be.
"I said 'They're on a witch hunt and I have some evidence to back that up,'" Koerber said. "[Shurtleff] said 'We're not in the business of rubber-stamping any witch hunt.' He said, 'Relax, the Department of Commerce doesn't control the Attorney General's Office.'"
Torgensen said those meetings in no way influenced the attorney general's decision.
"No. No. Absolutely 100 percent no," he said. "Nothing Mr. Koerber said, nothing he protested, influenced the outcome of this case. Nothing. And that's the absolute truth, not from Mark Shurtleff's perspective, not from my perspective."
Torgensen said Shurtleff told him to "take the case wherever it leads," and Wimmer has said he simply arranged meetings like he would for any Utahn, and didn't advocate on Koerber's behalf.
"The idea that I tried to interfere with this investigation is just ludicrous," Wimmer said.
This week -- nearly 18 months after the attorney general's office first declined the matter -- U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman announced a three-count indictment against Koerber, alleging he convinced investors to invest $100 million with his businesses.
Half the money was used to pay supposed dividends to early investors, while the rest was used to finance a lavish lifestyle, including $1 million spent on cars, and $5 million he invested in the movie "Evil Angel," according to prosecutors.
Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney, said the information provided by the securities division was used as reference, but the FBI and IRS did their own investigation.
On Friday, Koerber, flanked by a handful of business associates and supporters, held a press conference at the Grand America Hotel, firing back at the state regulators. He played snippets from recorded conversations with regulators, where they expressed reservations about the case and told Koerber that he "had not broken any rule or law."
Koerber called charges in the federal indictment "absurd and bogus," adding, "I am confident that I will be exonerated and that the allegations contained in the indictment will be shown to be patently false."
Koerber also said he plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against several current and former state officials.