Some financial crime suspects get to avoid jail cells

Sunday , July 27, 2014 - 6:21 AM

The Top of Utah is no stranger to accusations of high-profile crime.

In March, South Weber Councilman Michael Poff was charged with communications fraud for reportedly dishonest behavior In his work as an administrator at Bountiful’s Welcome Home Assisted Living. Kaysville man Dee Allen Randall was charged with 23 felonies in June for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme that brought in $72 million from hundreds of investors, including northern Utah’s Boy Scouts of America Trapper Trails Council and the federal Small Business Administration. Private security companies reportedly got in on the action too: North Salt Lake man Michael Anthony Vigil, co-owner of Salt Lake Valley Protective Services, pleaded guilty in May to avoiding paying both taxes and his employees.

And statewide, residents witnessed the arrest of two recent prosecutors-in-chief, Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, on a bevy of corruption charges, earlier this month. That legal fight has been on high display for well over a year.

Accusations of backdoor financial deals and illicit promises to investors and employees define many of these cases. But high-stakes financial crime arrests often look very little like the process undergone by street criminals accused of theft, burglary and robbery:

Related Galleries

- Swallow and Shurtleff didn’t have to go into a holding cell. The two were “booked” and signed in at the Salt Lake County Jail, but were never put behind bars.

- Poff was given a choice of several locations up and down the Wasatch Front for the precise location of getting his booking mugshot. Poff ultimately chose to have his photo taken at the Salt Lake County Jail.

- Court documents indicate Randall was never jailed for his alleged Ponzi scheme, having posted $100,000 bail in late June to avoid arrest. The warrant that had been issued for his arrest had been recalled, according to court records.

Do such allowances indicate a double standard in how different kinds of criminal suspects are viewed in the justice system? Two Weber County Sheriff’s detectives sat down with the Standard-Examiner to discuss why they believe arrests are made differently for those accused of white-collar crime.

That term is first and foremost a misnomer, says Detective Don Kelly, who works as an analyst in Ogden’s Real Time Crime Center but also deals largely with financial cases. “White collar crime,” Kelly says, indicates theft on a large scale and that it is fundamentally different than snatching someone’s purse or taking their car. It isn’t, he says.

“Law enforcement works rely hard to view the public and view the people we’re dealing with. We try to treat everybody the same. Just like any human being -- I’m a human being – we’re not always completely successful at that, but we try to do that,” Kelly said. “So the problem of (calling large scale financial fraud) ‘white collar crime’ versus some other kind of crime is you might be saying, well, we’re going to treat a white collar crime maybe better somehow than a person who commits theft. But the truth of the matter is they’re the same thing. The white collar criminal is committing theft.”

It’s clear that many high-profile financial cases don’t involve a holding cell for the alleged perpetrator, Kelly said, but that’s very frequently because of the nature of financial crime investigations.

“We’re not right on top of the crime. I’m not standing out there in front of the bank when the guy comes out with the bag of money and you know we point the guns at him we arrest him and take him to jail,” Kelly said. “No, what we’re dealing with as detectives is a case that might have happened six months or a year prior. Quite often the level of evidence, it’s not necessarily ... the smoking gun, where you’ve got five witnesses who have signed in blood, ‘this is exactly what happened.’”

It’s not uncommon for a high-profile financial crime suspect to be interviewed by police for several months before enough evidence is collected to obtain an arrest warrant, Kelly said.

Because the element of surprise is already taken away, Kelly said, the benefits of a physical arrest are reduced.

“Whether we have an attorney appear with them (at the jail) or whether we go and get them and take them (there), they’re going to have to be booked,” he added. “They appear at the jail. If there’s a bond they have to post a bond and they have to meet the requirements for the booking process.”

Detective Scottie Sorensen specializes in financial crime and has been working in the county’s Investigation Bureau since 2002. He told the Standard-Examiner that booking procedures vary by case because the initial booking is generally a temporary process anyway.

“Even if you arrest them they still have the option of bailing,” Sorensen said, noting affluent fraud criminals typically do bail out quickly regardless. “I can’t even think of any times in my career with finance crimes a judge has ever ordered someone to stay in jail without bail. So there’s always bail, there’s always that option.”

In “cases where there’s a lot of knowledge, where the public … wants answers,” he said, the flight risk is negligible.

Sorensen said people typically think of major schemes when it comes to financial crime. But most theft and fraud is petty crime and easily tracked down.

“The misconception is that they get away with it. Other crimes are way easier to get away with than financial crimes,” he said. ”With financial crimes you always leave a trail that we can follow not always do we get our suspect. But it’s easier to investigate a finance crime than it is a vehicle burglary or something to that effect.”

Contact reporter Ben Lockhart at 801-625-4221 or blockhart@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @SE_Lockhart. Like his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/blockhartSE.

Related Stories

Get the Standard-Examiner Advantage.

Popular Stories for Courts

Ogden homicide suspect granted bail; victim stabbed 46 times

OGDEN — The family of Tawnee Baird erupted in the public waiting area Wednesday when the judge granted bail for the woman charged with her murder....