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Business owner was looking for a ‘fair shake’ from Swallow

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Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo Utah attorney general candidate John Swallow is locked in a tough battle with Sean Reyes. The two are battling for the Republican nomination and the right to face Democrat Dee Smith in November.

By Robert Gehrke

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 02 2012 05:58PM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:57AM

The businessman who recorded a conversation with attorney general candidate John Swallow said he called Swallow hoping to "get a fair shake," because he felt he had been treated unfairly by the Division of Consumer Protection.

Aaron Christner, who ran a Utah-based call center before getting in trouble with the division, said he contacted Swallow ahead of a fundraiser Swallow held with telemarketers, hoping the candidate would listen.

"When I saw the industry was going out to meet with this guy, I said, ‘I have to do something. If I have a $400,000 fine, everyone else is rubbing elbows, I should see if I can meet with him,’ " Christner said Saturday. "I just called to see if I could get a fair shake. I said, this is the situation. You’re doing a fundraiser. Can you help? Can you not help? … It’s not like I was trying to grease his palm to get a special deal."

Christner didn’t donate to Swallow’s campaign and said he never had any interest in contributing, nor would he vote for Swallow. But he had been told by people in the call center industry that Swallow was the best person to talk to.

During the conversation, Swallow expressed his plans to try to move the Division of Consumer Protection out of the Department of Commerce and into the attorney general’s office.

Christner said he recorded the call, which lasted just a few minutes, to protect himself and gave it to the alternative publication City Weekly because he felt it showed Swallow shared his frustration with the way the Division of Consumer Protection operates.

Christner opened his call center in 2007. One of his clients sold "coaching" software to help buyers open businesses. But the client pushed him to call buyers of the $3,000 package within three weeks and tell them their businesses would fail if they didn’t spend another $5,000.

Christner said he refused, told employees to refund customers’ money, and terminated his relationship with the client in 2009, which cost $1.5 million. But upset customers still went to the state and Christner believes a cozy relationship between the state and the prior client prompted regulators to clamp down.

After a series of violations, Christner and his partner, Ryan Scott Jensen, racked up $400,000 in fines, which the division has gone to state court to collect. Christner and Jensen have until June 18 to respond to the legal action.

Christner said he has been hiding from consumer protection because, after the series of confrontations, he believes they have a vendetta against him.

On April 7, however, he reached out to Swallow.

"I got to the point where I had my back against the wall," he said. "I took the opportunity to call him and get him on the phone because maybe my story could help."

They talked for about three minutes and during the chat, Swallow offered to arrange a meeting with Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and told Christner of his plans to move the Division of Consumer Protection into the attorney general’s office.

"I know there’s always two sides, even to a very thin pancake," Swallow said.

Christner said Jensen attended Swallow’s April 27 fundraiser with call center operators, but gave no money. No follow-up meeting has taken place with Shurtleff or Swallow.

The Swallow campaign said the meeting offer reflected the candidate’s "open-door" policy.

Shurtleff’s willingness to meet with targets of consumer protection investigations has caused friction in the past with the agency.

He met with Rick Koerber at a restaurant in the fall of 2007 while the division was investigating Koerber for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme. The attorney general’s office later refused to file a case against Koerber, but federal prosecutors eventually filed charges, which are still pending.

Shurtleff has also spent time with Jeremy Johnson, the founder of I-Works, which sold a coaching program through telemarketers. Johnson and his associates gave nearly $200,000 to Shurtleff’s campaigns, flew the attorney general to California on his private jet, and let him drive his Lamborghini.

Johnson has also been charged by federal authorities with running a major scam that netted him more than $48 million.

Christner said that when he got into the call center business, he was told by a colleague that he should donate to Shurtleff.

"[He said] as soon as you get 10 grand, tell me. We’ll throw it over to Shurtleff. You’ll get a round of golf and you’ll be good," Christner said, but he refused. "I just don’t do that."

Swallow’s campaign said Friday that he does believe moving consumer protection would help it operate more efficiently and effectively. Legislators have balked at moving the agency in the past and a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert said the division should stay put. Utah is one of 17 states where consumer protection is an independent agency.

Now, Christner, who didn’t expect his tape to become the focus of media attention, said he is doing some small Web design work and developing mobile applications for small and mid-size businesses.

"I’m just trying to pick up my pieces. I was ruined by the State of Utah," he said, explaining he lost almost $1.5 million from the fallout with his earlier client "and the State of Utah came in and put me out of business. I’ve lost everything."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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