Detroit – A federal judge refused Tuesday to dismiss a corruption indictment against Sen. Bert Johnson, who is accused of stealing from taxpayers by hiring a ghost employee for a no-show job so he could repay a personal debt.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman denied the defense request in a case alleging Johnson stole money from a federally funded program to pay the ghost employee.
The indictment should be dismissed because Johnson cannot be considered an agent of the state of Michigan and because the legislature receives no federal funds, defense lawyer John Shea argued.
Jurors can consider that position when Johnson stands trial in March, the judge said after listening to arguments about the flow of federal dollars to Michigan.
“This is an important issue to address during the trial,” Leitman said.
The hearing was the latest legal development in a high-profile case that is among a new wave of public corruption scandals to hit Metro Detroit in the years since former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and 40 others were convicted of federal corruption crimes.
Two weeks ago, Leitman delayed Johnson’s corruption trial until March to give the embattled politician more time to prepare and review evidence.
The Highland Park Democrat is accused of putting a ghost employee on his Senate payroll so he could repay loans. The ghost employee is Glynis Thornton, who was ensnared in an earlier corruption scandal involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit.
She is cooperating with authorities and secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015.
Johnson, 43, is facing conspiracy and theft charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. The indictment alleges Johnson stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015.
Prosecutors fought the attempt to dismiss the indictment, saying the request defied logic.
“It’s like saying Matthew Stafford is an agent of the offense, but not the Detroit Lions,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley told the judge Tuesday.
Johnson is both an agent of the state and Senate, Buckley wrote in an earlier filing.
At trial, prosecutors will argue Johnson borrowed $10,000 from Thornton.
“Because he was unable to repay Thornton, on March 28, 2014, Johnson placed Thornton on his senatorial staff,” the prosecutor wrote. “Johnson placed Glynis Thornton on his senatorial staff not to perform work, but solely to repay Johnson’s personal loan debt to her using taxpayers’ money under the care, custody, and control of the state of Michigan.”
Johnson borrowed an additional $4,000 in cash from Thornton three days after he put her on the Senate payroll, the prosecutor wrote.
“In October, 2014, while she was on his staff, Johnson borrowed an additional $3,000 in cash from Thornton to pay his property taxes, which he ultimately repaid,” Buckley wrote.
Johnson is paid a $71,685 annual salary as a state senator but could not afford to hire an attorney and received a court-appointed lawyer.
Johnson is free on bond and remains in office.