Detroit — State Sen. Bert Johnson vowed to fight an indictment by a federal grand jury Tuesday that accused him of hiring a ghost employee on his Senate payroll and stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers.
Johnson, 43, a Highland Park Democrat, was indicted on 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.
The charges come two weeks after the FBI raided Johnson’s home in Highland Park and his Lansing office and follow waves of recent public corruption cases that have hit Detroit City Hall, Wayne County government, the Detroit school district and, most recently, Macomb County government.
More than 40 public officials from Metro Detroit have been convicted of crimes in federal court in the last 10 years, including ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Monica Conyers, the former Detroit councilwoman and wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit.
“Theft of taxpayers’ money by elected public officials, as these charges allege, is disheartening and will not be tolerated,” acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch said in a Tuesday statement.
Johnson’s attorney denied the allegations Tuesday and said his client has no plans to resign as a result of the indictment.
“The allegations are false, and we’re going to litigate that in the courtroom,” Cyril Hall, a Dearborn-based attorney, told The Detroit News.
Senate leadership is unlikely to force the issue as the legal process plays out. The state senator is not in custody, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit is arranging for him to surrender.
Johnson, who has a history of financial struggles and legal fights over unpaid bills, is paid a $71,685 annual salary as a state senator. He represents the 2nd Senate District, which stretches from southwest Detroit through the city’s east side and includes Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the Pointes.
He borrowed at least $14,000 in cash from an unnamed co-conspirator and later hired the person as a community liaison, according to the indictment. The no-show job was merely a way for Johnson to pay off the debt, the government alleges.
According to public records, Glynis Thornton, a former educator who has pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority, is the only person who matches the known details of the ghost employee listed in the indictment. A source familiar with the investigation previously told The News the federal probe involved Thornton. She couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
The ghost employee was paid $23,134 in taxpayer money, according to the indictment.
Paper trail to be key
The indictment indicates prosecutors have a paper trail of evidence, including time sheets, payroll records and state employment paperwork. The paper trail will be important if the case goes to trial, considering prosecutors also are relying on Thornton, a corrupt school contractor, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
“You don’t want this case to hang solely on (Thornton) because of the baggage she carries,” Henning said. “She has admitted to being corrupt. That’s not a very strong witness, but you want to make this case on the paper.”
Hall confirmed that Johnson hired Thornton but denied she was a “ghost employee” who did not actually perform any work.
“We can prove it because other people saw her and what work she did,” Hall said. “That’s ultimately going to come out.”
But the FBI insisted it is a case of public corruption.
“Today’s indictment is an unfortunate reminder that public officials sometimes squander the public’s trust in exchange for personal gain,” said David P. Gelios, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, in a statement. “Rooting out public corruption at all levels of government is an investigative priority of the FBI.”
The reaction at the Capitol was muted Tuesday as legislators continued a two-week spring break. It’s not immediately clear what the indictment could mean for Johnson’s future in the state Senate, where his second and final term runs through the end of 2018.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, “will monitor the legal process,” spokeswoman Amber McCann said in an email, but she declined further comment.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, didn’t indicate he would seek the lawmaker’s resignation, saying that “these are serious charges announced today by the U.S. attorney, but Sen. Johnson is presumed innocent.”
Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, said he was “heartbroken” by the charges against Johnson, whom he’s worked closely with in the upper chamber.
“I just think it’s sad and unfortunate,” Young said. “He’s a friend, and it hurts to see that happen to him, it really does.”
Young declined to predict Johnson’s fate in the Senate, saying he is praying for his colleague but wants to give him “the space he needs to make the decision that he needs to make.”
The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative advocacy group based in Lansing, called on Johnson to resign over the indictment.
“Bert Johnson has thoroughly and irreconcilably lost the trust of Michigan residents and can no longer effectively represent his constituents,” executive director Tony Daunt said in a statement. “Facing multiple felony charges and the prospect of 10 years in prison, Johnson must resign immediately.”
Johnson’s attorney said the senator has no plans to step down.
“He’s not going to resign, and he shouldn’t resign as a result of this,” Hall said.
Contractor involved in case
The ghost employee is not identified in the indictment but dates, a company name and a job title listed in federal court records and a list of Johnson’s staff obtained by The News indicate the employee is Thornton.
Thornton worked for Johnson as a “community liaison” between March 28, 2014, and Jan. 2, 2015, according to the state Senate Business Office. She earned $20 per hour in the role. According to the Johnson indictment, the ghost employee’s starting date was March 28, 2014, and last day was Jan. 2, 2015. No other employee was hired or stopped working on those dates.
The indictment also indicates the ghost employee owned a consulting company known as “M.A.D.E.” Thornton’s company, Making a Difference Everyday, or “M.A.D.E,” factored into the school corruption case.
Thornton has not been sentenced in federal court but is required to cooperate with the government, according to court records.
The case against Johnson emerged publicly two weeks ago. On March 27, investigators spent more than an hour at the Johnson home on McLean off Woodward during raids. Agents came out with boxes and bagged items, putting them inside of a pickup in the driveway and in a car that was parked on the street in front of the house.
Authorities declined to say what they were searching for at the time but also warned the state Senate they planned to search a separate communal storage space that Johnson may have used near the state Capitol.
Johnson has served in the state Legislature since 2007. He won election to the Senate in 2010 and cruised to re-election in 2014. He ran for the U.S. House in 2012 but finished fourth in a Democratic primary dominated by incumbent Rep. John Conyers of Detroit.
Johnson served eight months in prison as a teenager after pleading guilty in a 1993 break-in and armed robbery at the Oakland Hills Country Club, but he has since worked to rehabilitate his image and reputation, sharing his self-described redemption story in a series of recent community speeches.
Since taking office, Johnson has been caught driving on a suspended license, feuded with consultants and racked up unpaid bills, failed to file campaign finance reports and missed more votes in Lansing than any other state senator.