By Melanie Batley
The FBI and Utah state prosecutors working on a corruption investigation say they have uncovered accusations of financial wrongdoing by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and GOP Sen. Mike Lee, but the Justice Department has so far declined to act on their recommendation for a full federal investigation.
Two district attorneys, one Democrat and one Republican, told The Washington Times, ABC News, and The Salt Lake Tribune this week that they have found evidence of possible financial wrongdoing by the lawmakers relating to suspect campaign contributions and other financial transactions.
“There are allegations, but they are very serious allegations and they need to be looked at by somebody,” Sim Gill, a Democrat and chief prosecutor in Salt Lake County, told The Washington Times. “If true, or even if asserted, they truly should be investigated and put to rest, or be confirmed.”
“The most appropriate entity to review those types of things, if they would, would be the Department of Justice,” Davis County District Attorney Troy Rawlings, a Republican, told ABC News. “Basically to look at their own. To look at allegations of conduct or misconduct involving federal officials.”
Rawlings told the Times, “Based on what we know today, we were surprised that the DOJ ran away.”
And Gill told the Tribune, “We cannot fully do justice to the things we’re coming across. It clearly raises concerns that can only be addressed — either to confirm [the allegations] or to put them to rest — by other entities.”
Reid and Lee both have ties to the online poker world, the reports say, and the investigation is looking at whether both or either politician sought or received money or other benefits from donors, fundraisers, or both in connection with doing political favors or taking official actions, according to the Times.
Jeremy Johnson, an official at a St. George, Utah, bank that processes hundreds of millions of dollars for one of the world’s largest online poker companies, said he and others started arranging tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to state and federal political campaigns, including Reid’s, ABC News reported.
Johnson claims he was instructed by online poker figures to hide illegal contributions to the campaigns of Reid and Lee in 2010 by finding “straw donors” who were reimbursed from poker accounts in the bank for money they supposedly contributed.
He also claimed that online poker industry officials hosted a fundraiser for Reid at which he promised to introduce federal legislation to legalize online poker if he was re-elected, which he ultimately did, even though he had had a longstanding public opposition to the legalization of Internet poker. Reid’s aides dispute there was any link in the timing of when Reid shifted his position on the matter, according to The Times.
ABC calls Johnson a “controversial figure” who is awaiting trial on 86 internet fraud charges alleging he scammed consumers out of millions of dollars.
Prosecutors are also looking at whether Lee provided accurate information when he bought, then sold a Utah home to a campaign contributor and federal contractor, leaving his mortgage bank to absorb large losses, the Times reported.
The FBI and state investigators have collected more than 100,000 bank records, emails, and other documents and interviewed more than 200 witnesses as part of the bipartisan probe, ABC News reports.
People familiar with the probe told the Times that the FBI and local investigators have been frustrated for months by the Justice Department’s inaction on the matter, and the concerns were recently escalated to FBI headquarters.
The concerns have also prompted discussions about whether to seek a special prosecutor who would bypass the Justice Department and U.S. attorney’s office and look at the evidence independently. In the meantime, the FBI cannot use a federal grand jury to gather evidence without the permission of the Justice Department or a special prosecutor.
“In this case, DOJ risks creating the perception of a cover-up rather than let agents use the normal tools and follow the evidence wherever it leads — a Republican, Democrat, Senate or not,” a senior FBI official based in Washington told the Times.
The evidence that was uncovered came out during an investigation focused on former Utah GOP Attorney General John Swallow and state officials, which continue to be the focus of the case, according to ABC News. But the prospectors said they may be forced to consider expanding it to include issues on the federal level if the Justice Department doesn’t step in.
“If somebody commits crimes and there’s a nexus to the state of Utah and we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, it doesn’t matter who they are,” Rawlings told ABC News. “Even a U.S. senator. And no, we’re not afraid of that. That’s our job.”
Reid’s spokesman, Adam Jentleson, called the statements by the district attorneys “a publicity stunt” and said Reid “has never been contacted in regards to this investigation.” He also said the questions about the investigation submitted by ABC News were “nothing but a fever-brained witch hunt.”
Lee’s office also said he had not been contacted about the investigation by the prosecutor’s office or the FBI.
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