Premature auction?
The stories surrounding St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson have grabbed the attention of many residents in St. George and in other communities. Though he is well known in Southern Utah as a philanthropist and search-and-rescue pilot, Johnson has been accused of being the mastermind behind a scheme that took millions of dollars from unsuspecting customers.

Johnson and several other defendants face charges from the Federal Trade Commission that they operated a "far-reaching Internet enterprise" that tricked customers into signing up for memberships or purchasing products or services and then repeatedly charging their credit and debit accounts without authorization. As a result, U.S. District Judge Kent J. Dawson froze Johnson's assets, as well as those of the Internet business I-Works and other companies, in January. The court-appointed receiver put in charge of the assets received permission to conduct an auction last weekend in Hurricane because of a foreclosure on the business's building and debts.

People who showed up for the auction could purchase office equipment such as calculators, chairs, computer monitors and software. But they also could bid on big-ticket items such as classic automobiles, a snow plane and a dune buggy owned by I-Works. Many of the people who purchased items walked away feeling like they had made good deals.

The question is whether the deals should have been made at all.

In addition to the FTC charges, Johnson is awaiting a criminal trial on a mail fraud charge connected to his businesses. He is out of jail on $2.8 million bond. He has to wear a monitoring device and is not allowed to leave the state unless for court appearances in Las Vegas, according to the stipulations of his release.

The key word in both the FTC and criminal court cases is "charges." Through court actions, including testimony, Johnson's guilt or innocence will be determined based on the law. If he is found guilty, he will face hefty fines and most likely will spend some significant time in prison.

Until that happens, however, he is innocent under our nation's legal system. It seems as though the court went too far in allowing things of value to be sold when the man has yet to be convicted of anything.

Some people view Johnson as being a bad guy, a man who bilked many people out of significant amounts of money. If he is convicted, his property should be sold to pay off debts, and he should serve time behind bars. But until a person is convicted, the court shouldn't be able to sell off property. To do so prior to a conviction is akin to punishing a person for a crime he or she hasn't been proven to have committed.

If we truly hold to the concept of "innocent until proven guilty," then this sale shouldn't have happened until after Johnson stood trial.
Originally published September 27, 2011