Political pals helped spare Johnson stiff prison term
State Sen. Bert Johnson talks with reporters at the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, about the FBI raid of his home and office.
Detroit — Several elected officials and political heavyweights, including former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, helped disgraced state Sen. Bert Johnson dodge a stiff prison term by writing supportive letters to the court.
More than two dozen letters were made public Monday and revealed that politicians, including Detroit City Council members Scott Benson and Janee Ayers, used city letterhead while writing letters supporting Johnson's plea for leniency.
The letters were made public four days after Johnson was sentenced to 90 days in a county jail for stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers by adding a ghost employee to his senate payroll. U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman cited the letters, saying that without the personal appeals, he would have sentenced Johnson to as much as 12 months in federal prison.
Johnson received support from numerous Democratic Party heavyweights and a broad cross-section of the community: local and state politicians, a lobbyist and relatives who backed a corrupt politician with a rap sheet, a chronic list of bad debts and the worst attendance record in the state Legislature.
“In my conversations with Bert he realizes he made a mistake, but I hope you will exercise the greatest level of leniency in your sentencing of Mr. Johnson," Benson wrote. "Even though a sever (sic) lapse of judgment has occurred, Bert is not a threat to society and his community can best be served by him remaining free."
Ayers called Johnson one of her best friends.
“Bert has been a mentor and a strong pillar within the community that he represents and throughout the state," Ayers wrote.
In an interview Monday, Ayers said she didn’t think there was anything wrong with using city letterhead since the letter was coming from two vantage points; in her official capacity as a council person as well as on a personal level.
“It was an official letter coming from me as a council person. I didn’t think of it as infringing on any rules,” Ayers said. “I wrote the letter as a council member and I printed it out on my letter head as a council person. If it is a negligence in using that, I apologize. I didn’t think about it from that perspective.”
Bing, meanwhile, wrote that Johnson was a hard-working legislator who fought for constituents.
“I am aware that Bert has pleaded guilty; but would hope that his political background, his public service, as well as his overall commitment to his community be considered and, therefore, allow for leniency regarding his sentencing," Bing wrote.
Johnson's public service outweighed his crimes and rap sheet, which includes a teenage conviction for armed robbery, Johnson's defense lawyer John Shea said last week.
“Please do not allow this recent indiscretion tarnish the good that Mr. Johnson has done as a state representative and senator," Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp wrote on city letterhead.
State Rep. Jewell Jones, a first-term Democratic lawmaker from Inkster, called Johnson a "gladiator."
“It is times like now when we need powerful, respected leaders in our nation, I believe it would be a disservice to the public to lose a gladiator like Bertram Johnson," Jones wrote. "Godspeed!”
William McConico, a 36th District Court Judge in Detroit, cited his friendship with Johnson while urging leniency.
“I ask you to take into account that Bert is much more of an asset within the community than away from it,” McConico wrote.
Johnson fought for the poor and children, wrote former state Rep. Phil Cavanaugh, who works for the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office.
“I believe that Bertram Johnson is truly remorseful for any wrongdoing,” Cavanaugh wrote.
A new documentary raises questions about Johnson’s remorse.
Speaking directly to the camera at some point after his indictment but prior to his conviction, Johnson says he went to the Capitol “every day trying to make a difference, trying to make a change” and help constituents.
“And somebody wants to take it away from you? Somebody wants to say you’re not the guy anymore? Frustrated is not the word. It’s (expletive).”
Jonathan Oosting contributed.