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Detroit – State Sen. Bert Johnson has rejected a plea deal that could have sent him to federal prison for one year and will stand trial on charges he stole from taxpayers by hiring a ghost employee for a no-show state job.

The rejected deal emerged Tuesday during a pretrial conference in front of U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman.

Johnson, D-Highland Park, was offered the deal by federal prosecutors within the last few weeks, his defense lawyer John Shea told the judge. The deal involved Johnson pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit theft from a federally funded program, a charge punishable by up to five years in federal prison.

In return, prosecutors would have dropped a second theft charge, a 10-year felony. Instead, Johnson, 44, will stand trial March 12 in federal court.

Sentencing guidelines in the deal called for a six-month to 12-month prison sentence.

“Was it your decision to decline the offer and proceed to trial?” the judge asked Johnson.

“Yes,” the senator said.

The trial is expected to last one week, with prosecutors seeking to prove that a debt-ridden Johnson stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015.

Johnson 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.

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, which Thornton granted, prosecutors said.

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,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley wrote in an earlier court filing. “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.

Shea previously 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.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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