Feds: Sen. Johnson spent ghost employee cash on taxes

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – Federal prosecutors unmasked Sen. Bert Johnson’s ghost employee Friday and accused the politician of giving her a no-show job on his Senate payroll so he could repay money he spent on property taxes.

In a court filing, prosecutors for the first time publicly confirmed 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.

The court filing Friday offers new details about Johnson’s well-documented financial problems and included redacted copies of his tax returns and state retirement plan.

The filing was the government’s response to Johnson’s attempt to dismiss the corruption indictment and, at least, delay an Oct. 23 trial in federal court.

Johnson, 43, is facing conspiracy and theft charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. The indictment alleges the Highland Park Democrat stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015.

The indictment alleges Johnson stole money from a federally funded program. 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 wrote in an earlier court filing.

“Johnson’s motion is predicated on the rather outlandish premise that as a Michigan State senator, he is merely an agent of the Michigan senate and not an agent of the government of the state of Michigan,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley wrote.

Johnson is both an agent of the state and Senate, the prosecutor wrote.

“... Johnson makes a desperate argument which borders on the absurd: that as senator, Johnson was merely an agent of the senate, and not an agent of the state of Michigan, when undeniably, Johnson was both,” Buckley wrote.

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. “Thornton received a total of $23,133.89 from the state of Michigan for being a member of Johnson’s senatorial staff, during which time Thornton performed no work for Johnson’s office.”

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.

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