Jailed state Sen. Bert Johnson featured in upcoming documentary
Lansing — Former state Sen. Bert Johnson was sentenced to jail, but his story is heading to the screen.
Atlas Industries of Southfield on Friday released a new trailer for an upcoming documentary titled “Bertram Johnson vs. The United States of America.”
The project was announced one day after Johnson was sentenced to 90 days of home confinement for hiring what prosecutors called a “ghost employee” to his state staff. As part of a plea deal, Johnson admitted to conspiring to steal money from a federally funded program.
The one-minute, 38-second trailer features a sympathetic — and defiant — interview with Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat who overcame a teenage conviction for armed robbery and rose to statewide public office.
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).”
Johnson, who amassed a poor attendance record in the state Legislature, was much more contrite Thursday at his sentencing hearing in federal court, where he apologized to constituents and relatives for breaching the public's trust.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman called the crime a serious offense but said he was impressed by Johnson’s mentoring strangers and colleagues as well as 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.
The forthcoming documentary is directed by Sean O’Grady, who produced a handful of Hollywood films before starting Atlas Industries, which he launched with a film about Hantz Farms in Detroit.
The documentary follows the former state Senator from his indictment, to resignation through his guilty plea, sentencing and the aftermath, according to a description provided by the production company, which said the film should be released this fall.
O’Grady, who was filming in Philadelphia mid-day Friday, said he had interviewed Johnson for a previous film and decided to pursue a documentary about him after learning federal officials raided his house and office in March.
"It was never our intention to persuade anyone of his innocence or guilt, or to detail the intricacies of the case against him, and you won’t find any of that in this film," O'Grady said by email.
"He was on a difficult and fascinating journey, and what the film hopes to accomplish is to allow a viewer to go along for that personal journey, and let audiences come to their own conclusions as to how they feel about him."
The trailer shows clips of television news segments about Johnson’s criminal case, along with footage of him interacting with constituents.
“I’m the same guy,” Johnson says. “There’s just someone willing to say the most scurrilous things about me because she’s in trouble.”
That someone appears to be a reference to Glynis Thornton, whom he hired as a state staffer in what prosecutors said was an arrangement to repay personal debts he owed her.
Thornton was ensnared in an earlier corruption scandal involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit. She cooperated with authorities and secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015.
At his sentencing Thursday, Johnson apologized for breaching the public's trust by hiring Thornton for a no-show job and 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.
Johnson’s sentence also requires him to serve 90 days home confinement, spend two years on supervised release and pay at least $23,134 restitution to the state. He must do 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.