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Judge delays Sen. Johnson’s corruption trial

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – A federal judge Monday delayed the corruption trial of Sen. Bert Johnson to give his lawyer more time to prepare and investigate a government witness’ background.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman delayed the trial 60 days to Aug. 22 after Johnson’s lawyer said he needed more time to hire a private investigator and an accounting expert.

Johnson’s lawyer Cyril Hall argued the aggressive time line and a June 20 trial date would lead to “a miscarriage of justice and ineffective assistance of counsel.”

Federal prosecutors opposed the delay, saying 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.

The public deserves a speedy trial considering Johnson is an elected public official, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson said.

Prosecutors plan to call about 12 witnesses over two or three days during the trial.

The Highland Park Democrat was arraigned April 18 after a federal grand jury indicted him on accusations he put a “ghost employee” on the state payroll to repay her for a personal loan.

Johnson’s attorneys said they intend to retain one or two forensic accounting experts and a private investigator to analyze the evidence, which includes the recording made by his alleged “ghost employee” Glynis Thornton and materials seized in raids on his Highland Park home and Senate office.

Johnson borrowed at least $14,000 in cash Thornton and later hired her as a community liaison, according to court records. 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.

She is awaiting sentencing and is expected to testify against Johnson.

Johnson’s lawyer wants to dig into Thornton’s background.

“I”m sure there’s more about her but we’ll have to find it on our own,” Hall told reporters outside federal court Monday.

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.

Johnson is accused of adding Thornton to his Senate office staff after she provided him with a personal loan. Authorities allege she did not perform any work for him but earned $23,134 in taxpayer money.

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.

Johnson, who is free on bond, remains in office. Senate leaders have heightened oversight over Johnson’s office staff and spending decisions during the case but have not imposed further sanctions.

rsnell@detnews.com

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews