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Detroit – Sen. Bert Johnson was deep in debt in fall 2013 when he conspired to steal from taxpayers by hiring a ghost employee for a no-show state job so he could repay loans, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

Prosecutors offered a glimpse at their trial strategy and an apparent motive three weeks before the Highland Park Democrat is scheduled to stand trial in federal court. Johnson is facing conspiracy and theft charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison and is accused of stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015.

Johnson, 44, faced several pressing debts in fall 2013, including his son’s private-school tuition at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, his own tuition at the University of Detroit-Mercy and his own debt to a political consulting firm, prosecutors said.

He 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 personally borrowed thousands of dollars from Thornton, and when unable to repay her, Johnson devised a plan to repay Thornton using State of Michigan dollars,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley wrote.

The public got a peek last fall at Johnson’s defense strategy. Defense lawyer John Shea tried to get the indictment dismissed, arguing Johnson cannot be considered an agent of the state of Michigan and that the Legislature receives no federal funds.

Jurors can consider those arguments during the trial, U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman decided after listening to arguments about the flow of federal dollars to Michigan.

In October 2013, Johnson asked Thornton for a $30,000 loan. She said no, according to prosecutors.

According to the government, Johnson tried again, asking for $20,000. Again, the answer was “no.”

Johnson tried a third time, asking for $10,000, prosecutors said.

“Johnson said he wanted cash and did not want to sign a promissory note or any other promise to repay, because he was a public official,” the prosecutor wrote.

Thornton sought repayment during the next five months but Johnson didn’t have the money, according to the government.

“Sometime in March 2014, Johnson proposed to Thornton that he could repay her his personal loan by putting Thornton on (his) Michigan Senate Office payroll for a one-time payment in the amount of $10,000,” Buckley wrote. “Thornton agreed to Johnson’s plan for repayment.”

Thornton was hired as a “community liaison” on March 28, 2014.

Three days later, Johnson asked her for $4,000, according to the government.

Thornton had an employee issue a check, cash it and give the money to the senator, Buckley wrote.

Meanwhile, Thornton was getting paid $22 an hour for her no-show job on the senator’s payroll, according to the government.

By October 2014, the senator needed more money, Buckley wrote. Johnson asked Thornton for $3,000 cash for a “last-minute payment of his property taxes,” according to the court filing.

The senator picked up the cash at Thornton’s home, prosecutors allege. Johnson soon repaid this loan.

Thornton remained on the senator’s payroll until January 2015. In all, she received $23,205 but provided no work, prosecutors wrote.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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