SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal magistrate said Tuesday that he intends to issue a gag order against federally indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Warner told attorneys at the outset of a one-hour hearing that it's not a matter of if a gag order is needed — but rather working to create one that is narrowly focused and doesn't infringe on his rights to free speech.
Warner ordered attorneys from both sides to work together to finish a draft of a gag order by April 17.
The U.S. attorney's office asked that Johnson be formally muzzled after they say he used the media to "publicly besmirch the integrity" of their office. They allege in court documents that Johnson used a blog, website, Facebook page and Salt Lake City media outlets to wrongly accuse the government and its prosecutors of misconduct.
Johnson is a St. George businessman who is facing 85 counts of fraud and money laundering. Federal prosecutors say Johnson's businesses used the Internet to fraudulently enroll millions of people in get-rich schemes by charging their credit cards without authorization. He was originally indicted nearly a year ago on three counts of fraud and money laundering. Johnson has maintained his innocence.
His public notoriety skyrocketed in recent months when he came out in the media and accused newly elected Utah Attorney General John Swallow of orchestrating a bribery scheme would have derailed a federal investigation into his business practices.
Johnson was at the hearing in the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. Sitting next to his attorney, he leaned forward, listening intently and sometimes scrunching his face as Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Lunnen argued for a gag order.
One of Johnson's new attorneys, Earl Xaiz, assured the magistrate that Johnson will no longer be trying the case in the press. He also pointed out that Johnson has stopped making public comments since he switched attorneys in early February. In a hearing in February, Johnson told Warner that he was finished talking.
"From that standpoint, I'm not sure we need an order," Xaiz said.
Warner said he's pleased with the recent behavior by Johnson, noting a "dramatic change," but said a gag order is still prudent. He said defendants have a right to maintain their innocence, but that casting aspersions upon people is not appropriate.
Xaiz didn't object to working with the U.S. attorney's office on the gag order.
Xaiz and his partner, Ronald Yengich, are new to the case. Johnson lost four other lawyers who quit the case earlier this year for reasons they explained only to a magistrate in private chambers.
Warner said repeatedly that it's not his intention to muzzle anybody unnecessarily, but he did express concern that 'surrogates' close to Johnson or the U.S. attorney's office could continue talking about the case in the media.
"Let me be candid: I don't want done indirectly what cannot be done directly," Warner said.
Warner gave attorneys instructions for what to include in the draft of the gag order. Among them was prohibiting the use of the internet and social media to speak about the case. The magistrate acknowledged that there are many ways to communicate now with the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
"But it's not that difficult to understand the basics: We don't want extrajudicial statements. Period," Warner said.
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