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Disgraced ex-Sen. Johnson gets 90 days for stealing from taxpayers

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
State Sen. Bert Johnson

Detroit — Former state Sen. Bert Johnson was sentenced to 90 days in jail Thursday for stealing from taxpayers.

The sentence by U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman for stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers by adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll was a fraction of the maximum 12 months in prison sought by federal prosecutors.

The conviction scuttled the redemption story of a Highland Park Democrat who overcame a teenage conviction for armed robbery and rose to statewide public office.

A stoic Johnson apologized to constituents and relatives for breaching the public's trust by hiring friend Glynis Thornton for a no-show job. He also apologized for adding his name to the list of dozens of Metro Detroit public officials and businessmen convicted of corruption in recent years.

"I should have never hired Glynis Thornton. That is my failure, and it's on me," Johnson told the judge.

The judge called the crime a serious offense but was impressed by Johnson mentoring strangers and colleagues and how he educated himself and became a state senator despite a teenage felony conviction.

"I personally believe you have learned your lesson," the judge said.

Johnson also must serve 90 days home confinement, spend two years on supervised release and pay at least $23,134 restitution to the state. He also must serve 480 hours of community service in his former Senate district, which encompasses northeast Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and all five Grosse Pointe communities.

The district has been unrepresented since Johnson resigned in disgrace in March.

"That's my way of trying to make the world right," the judge told Johnson.

Prosecutors wanted Johnson to spend up to one year in federal prison, saying he cheated taxpayers and stole money to pay off debts, while his defense lawyer pushed for probation and home confinement.

“Public officials, especially those elected by the people, cannot treat the people’s money as their own,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement. “The defendant in this case treated taxpayer money as his own, to repay his personal debt. Such an egregious abuse of power will not be tolerated.”

Johnson was elected despite a teenage conviction for armed robbery, then amassed the worst attendance record in the state Legislature. From 2010 to 2017, no state legislator had skipped more votes than Johnson, who missed 712 of 5,115 roll calls, according to data compiled by

Johnson's public service was commendable and outweighed his rap sheet and crime, his lawyer said. The former state senator was instrumental in helping Highland Park out of insolvency and spared six Detroit public schools from closure while pushing 31 bills through the state Legislature, an enviable record, his lawyer argued.

Johnson 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.

“Senator Johnson made a conscious decision to violate the trust and confidence of the constituents that he was elected to represent,” IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Manny Muriel said in a statement.

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.

In March, Johnson struck a plea deal, admitting he conspired to steal money from a federally funded program, a five-year felony.

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

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.

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

Johnson will pay at least half of the amount of stolen money Thursday, his lawyer said. 

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