Sen. Bert Johnson freed on $10K bond

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – State Sen. Bert Johnson, accused of adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll and stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers, was arraigned Tuesday in federal court and released on $10,000 unsecured bond.

State Sen. Bert Johnson

Johnson brushed off reporters and said little during the brief arraignment in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand other than acknowledging he understood that the charges could send him to federal prison for up to 10 years.

Afterward, his lawyer criticized the government’s handling of the case, saying officials charged an innocent man and failed to discuss the accusations before seeking an indictment of Johnson.

“We recognize the government’s efforts to make sure politicians are above reproach, ... but we wish we had been given an opportunity to speak before he was indicted,” defense lawyer Cyril Hall told reporters.

If there had been a conversation, Hall said he would have told prosecutors Johnson “was not guilty.”

Johnson, wearing a dark suit and a glum expression, winced while he waited in the front row of federal court as acquaintances stopped to shake his hand.

The wait lasted about 30 minutes while a parade of accused criminals, some in handcuffs and ankle chains, stood before the magistrate. They included an alleged crystal meth dealer, a convicted felon busted on a gun charge, a fraudster and an accused drug dealer arrested after federal agents found cocaine in his kitchen, marijuana in the bedroom and $23,000 hidden in the ceiling of his home.

Johnson has experience with the criminal justice system.

He 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.

Johnson’s defense lawyer said the 43-year-old Democratic senator from Highland Park is paying for his services, contradicting a filing in federal court indicating that Johnson was receiving a court-appointed lawyer.

The criminal case against Johnson, who is paid a $71,685 annual salary as a state senator, alleges he created a no-show job in his Senate office and used the cash to pay a debt.

Johnson, who did not attend the Senate’s session Tuesday morning in Lansing, has vowed to fight the charges and his lawyer said the senator will not resign. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has said he plans let the legal process play out and is not seeking to oust Johnson from office or committee posts.

According to the indictment, Johnson borrowed at least $14,000 in cash from an unnamed co-conspirator and later hired the person as a community liaison.

Public records indicate 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 Detroit 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.

Johnson’s lawyer accused Thornton of dragging the senator into a criminal case so she could receive a more lenient sentence in the Education Achievement Authority case.

“(Thornton) is trying to involve him in something to get the benefit of a sentence” reduction, Hall told reporters.

Johnson 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 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 against Johnson came two weeks after the FBI raided the senator’s home in Highland Park and his Lansing office and followed 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.

The indictment against Johnson indicates prosecutors have a paper trail of evidence, including time sheets, payroll records and state employment paperwork.

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Jonathan Oosting contributed.