3 prosecutors resign amid probe into free Utah Jazz tickets provided by defense lawyer

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Three prosecutors in Utah recently resigned amid an internal investigation into free Utah Jazz tickets they received from a defense lawyer who had appeared opposite them.

The deputy Utah County attorneys who resigned are Craig Johnson, Chase Hansen and Pona Sitake, report the Salt Lake Tribune and the Daily Herald. Both publications obtained a human resources report on the investigation into the Dec. 4 tickets provided by defense attorney Dennis Pawelek.

The Salt Lake Tribune says the prosecutors resigned in early February, while the Daily Herald reports they resigned in late January.

Sitake also was investigated in the fall for allegations he took photos of women in court and then shared them in a group message where men talked about their looks, a prior report said.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt confirmed the resignations in interviews with both publications. He said there was no evidence of a quid pro quo, but there can be a conflict of interest when prosecutors receive anything of value from their opponents.

Friendly relationships between prosecutors and defense lawyers could affect plea bargains, he said. “Our system should be based on evidence,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune, “not on relationships.”

In a written statement provided to the Daily Herald, Johnson said he resigned because his special victims unit was disbanding and because of “philosophical differences with Mr. Leavitt.”

He said it was a false narrative to suggest the free ticket “in any way affected my ability to fairly and ethically represent the citizens of Utah County.”

Johnson said he and Pawelek had a long-standing friendship in which they coached their children in T-ball and had family barbecues. “Suggesting that we ever compromised cases together that short-changed the pursuit of justice could not be further from the truth,” he said in the statement.

The prosecutors said during investigative interviews they were friends with Pawelek and he had paid for Jazz tickets in the past, according to the Daily Herald. They all denied doing anything improper.

Pawelek also told the Daily Herald he did nothing wrong. “It’s not like I just bought them Jazz tickets,” he said. “We all went to the game together. We’ve been friends for a long time. It was just friends going out to a game. They bought dinner, parking, some ice cream afterwards, and I had the tickets.”

Pawelek said it is important for prosecutors and defense lawyers to have a good working relationship. “Why have a caustic relationship when you work with each other?” he told the Daily Herald.

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