A Detroit federal judge on Thursday canceled plans for embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson to stand trial on public corruption charges later this month, a new delay in the case that will give the Highland Park Democrat more time to work with his new court-appointed defense attorney.
Johnson is accused of conspiring to steal public money by putting a “ghost employee” on his Senate payroll to repay her for personal loans. He was set to go to trial on Aug. 22.
But District Judge Matthew Leitman’s new order canceled all remaining deadlines and hearings in the case, including a plea deal cut-off and final pretrial conference set for next Tuesday. The dates will be rescheduled, the order said.
Leitman did not provide further explanation, but the delay came two days after a status conference with federal prosecutors and Johnson’s taxpayer-funded attorney John Shea, who took over his defense last month after Johnson dumped his original lawyer and claimed he was broke.
Attorney Cyril Hall withdrew from the case on July 11, and Shea accepted the court appointment two days later.
It’s the second significant delay in the case, originally scheduled for trial on June 20. Leitman had extended the original time line by 60 days after Hall requested more time to hire a private investigator and accounting expert.
Prosecutors did not fight Hall’s attempt to quit the case, but they did question Johnson’s claims of indigence and urged Leitman not to delay the trial.
“The timing of Johnson’s stated dissatisfaction with current counsel, coupled with Johnson’s failure to file any pre-trial motions, suggests a personal strategy of delay by Johnson,” prosecutors said at the time.
The case is not complex and evidence amounts to one secret recording, 26 law enforcement reports, three search warrant affidavits and a variety of records from the state, banks and cellphone companies, prosecutors said.
Johnson, 43, is facing conspiracy and theft charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. The indictment alleges he conspired to steal public money between March 2014 and January 2015. He remains in office and free on bond.
Johnson recently praised his new attorney and suggested he will be “not only victorious, but ... vindicated” at trial.
Court records show Johnson borrowed at least $14,000 from alleged ghost employee Glynis Thornton and later hired her as a community liaison. The no-show job was merely a way for Johnson to pay off the debt, the government alleges.
Thornton, who pleaded guilty in a separate public corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit, was cooperating with authorities and secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015.