SALT LAKE CITY — A federal court arraignment for "Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" star Jen Shah was halted because so many people flooded the virtual hearing, the defendant herself could not connect to it.
During a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court's Southern District of New York, Judge Sidney Stein declared: "This is inadequate" and ended the hearing, rescheduling it for Friday to give IT staff at the courthouse more time to deal with the volume of people.
Shah and her co-defendant, Stuart Smith, were appearing remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions. They were indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering charges. The two were arrested here in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Before the hearing even began, people could be heard unmuted on the line. They appeared to be fans of the show Shah is a cast member of.
"I'm on for the 'Housewives' trial," declared one.
Later, as clerks sought to find attorneys for both Shah and Smith on the video conferencing platform, someone else chimed in: "Do you watch Bravo?"
Clerks and the judge repeatedly chastised people to mute their phones.
But there were difficulties connecting Shah's lawyer, Salt Lake City-based criminal defense attorney Clayton Simms, as well as Shah herself. Smith's attorney, Gil Athay, who is also based in Salt Lake City, sat patiently on the video conference with his client and joked that he had no difficulties because he logged on early to beat the crowd.
Despite the absurdity of "Real Housewives" fans flooding the line and shutting down the hearing, it presented an actual legal challenge: Judge Stein acknowledged the hearing must be public, but the defendants have a right to appear before a judge to face the charges and a judge must be able to clearly communicate with them.
Shah and Smith are accused in a larger telemarketing fraud case that has been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. Prosecutors have alleged that Shah and Smith were involved in generating "lead lists" of potential clients for business opportunities that were ultimately scammed.
On Wednesday, the Utah Department of Commerce declined to comment about whether it was investigating any complaints against Shah or her companies.
Rudy Bautista, a criminal defense attorney who often represents people accused of white collar crimes, told FOX 13 on Wednesday that it's possible Shah came to light because of one of the co-defendants who struck a deal with federal prosecutors.
"It appears to me they’re probably relying on a snitch," he said in an interview.
He questioned the veracity of the government's case against Shah and Smith, but said he fully expected the government to use their appearances on the reality TV show against them.
"They’re hoping people see the videos and see the lifestyle she lives in Park City," he said, referring to the upscale ski resort town. "They’re going to want to paint a picture of that. Some of the things they’ve said, 'She incorporated companies and had offshore accounts.' That is the American way."