SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Federal Election Commission is suing a Utah businessman, saying he made $170,000 in illegal campaign contributions to U.S. Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Mike Lee of Utah and former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in 2009 and 2010.
The FEC's lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, says Jeremy Johnson gave tens of thousands of dollars to friends, family members and employees to make "straw donations" to the three in violation of campaign finance laws. Federal law limited campaign contributions to $2,400 per person each election at the time.
Johnson is accused of donating some $100,000 to Shurtleff, $50,000 to Lee and $20,000 to Reid to protect his business interests from federal prosecution.
"Contributors ... gave funds ostensibly in their own names to the candidates but with the understanding that Johnson would either advance them the funds or reimburse them after the contributions were made," the complaint states. "Johnson advanced or reimbursed approximately $170,000 to the straw donors he recruited."
Reid, a Democrat who was Senate majority leader at the time, and Lee, a Republican, won election in 2010. Shurtleff, a Republican, dropped out of the U.S. Senate race in 2010.
Johnson said he's outraged because the FEC complaint stems from interviews with investigators pursuing criminal charges against Shurtleff and his successor, former Attorney General John Swallow. Johnson is a central figure in the cases against the two, who have been charged with multiple felony counts after being accused of accepting gifts from him. Both deny any wrongdoing.
"For my cooperation, I was guaranteed immunity ... I am stunned. I can't imagine anybody who wouldn't be outraged if they were in my shoes," Johnson told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Reid, Lee and Shurtleff were unaware of any illegal contributions to their campaigns, according to their representatives.
"We know nothing about Mr. Johnson's latest legal problems with the Federal Election Commission," Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman told The Tribune.
Lee, who is seeking re-election to a second term in 2016, also knew nothing about any unlawful donations, spokeswoman Emily Long said.
"At no time during or since the 2010 campaign was Sen. Lee or anyone associated with the Lee campaign aware of any unlawful contributions to the Lee campaign," she said in a statement. "The documents obtained by investigators confirm that the scheme was known only to individuals who may have been involved as stated in the report."
Shurtleff's attorney, Richard Van Wagoner, also issued a statement on behalf of his client. "Mr. Shurtleff relied on his professional campaign finance staff to accept only legal contributions, and he had no knowledge of prohibited donations, if any, to his Senate campaign," the statement says.
The lawsuit states Johnson and Swallow discussed "how contributing to Lee's campaign would help protect and advance Johnson's business interests." By winning, Lee could play a key role in the appointment of a U.S. attorney in Utah who could help Johnson, the complaint says.
Johnson faces dozens of criminal charges for alleged conspiracy, bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering in a separate case. He's accused of tricking online customers into spending $281 million on bogus Internet services.
The FEC lawsuit seeks civil penalties against Johnson.