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Detroit — Disgraced former state Sen. Bert Johnson should spend up to one year in federal prison for stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers by adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll, a prosecutor says.

A federal court filing Thursday portrayed Johnson, 44, as a deadbeat who faced mounting financial problems in 2013.

Johnson will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman on Sept. 6, six months after striking a plea deal with federal prosecutors. The case marked another betrayal of taxpayers by an elected official in Metro Detroit and scuttled the redemption story of a Highland Park Democrat who overcame a teenage conviction for armed robbery and rose to statewide public office.

"Johnson devised and participated in a corrupt conspiracy that betrayed the trust of the people of the state of Michigan, using the authority granted to him by his public office in order to pay back his personal debts," Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Lee Carlson wrote in the court filing. "This sentence will send a clear message that corruption by those who elected and sworn to represent the best interests of the public will be met with serious consequences."

Johnson, whose district encompassed northeast Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and all five Grosse Pointe communities, resigned after pleading guilty in March.

He is the highest-ranking public official in Michigan convicted of a corruption crime since ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison in the City Hall corruption scandal in 2013.

State law bars anyone from serving in a state or local office for 20 years after being convicted of a felony involving “dishonesty, deceit, fraud or a breach of the public trust.” Voters agreed to toughen the state constitutional language in the wake of Kilpatrick’s case.

Johnson's tenure as a state senator was dogged by the worst attendance record in the state Legislature and a scandal involving allegations he hired a ghost employee who was paid to do no work.

Johnson admitted conspiring to steal money from a federally funded program, a five-year felony.

In exchange, prosecutors dropped a second, 10-year theft charge.

Johnson also has agreed to pay $23,133.89 restitution to the state.

Johnson stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015, according to prosecutors.

He was accused of putting the ghost employee on his payroll so he could repay loans. By 2013, he faced mounting debts, including his son’s private-school tuition at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, his own tuition at the University of Detroit-Mercy and a debt to a political consulting firm, prosecutors said.

The ghost employee was Glynis Thornton, who was ensnared in an earlier corruption scandal involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit.

"Rather than honor the oath he took to faithfully discharge his duties, he subverted the oath for his own benefit," Carlson wrote. "He was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, while at the same time compromising the integrity of how public funds were spent."

Thornton cooperated with authorities and secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015.

The recording proved Johnson knew he was committing a crime, the prosecutor wrote.

During the conversation, Thornton suggested telling the FBI about the conspiracy.

"I mean, what’s, what’s the prob — I mean honest to God, what’s the problem?" Thornton said.

"I am a public official," Johnson said. "It was never supposed to be, never supposed to be (unintelligible)."

"Would I be in trouble?" Thornton asked.

"Yeah," the senator said.

"Both of us?" Thornton asked.

"Yes," Johnson said.

Johnson violated the public’s trust and its confidence in its public officials, the prosecutor wrote.

"His criminal conduct and resulting resignation left the nearly 55,000 people of his district without representation for much of 2018," Carlson wrote. "The seriousness of his conduct warrants the imposition of a term of imprisonment."

rsnell@detroitnews.com 

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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