Sen. Bert Johnson tries to dump lawyer as trial nears

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit – The fireworks started early for Sen. Bert Johnson on the 4th of July.

That morning, the indicted Highland Park Democrat, accused of adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll and stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers, met with defense lawyer Cyril Hall in Dearborn.

During the meeting, Johnson said he wanted to dump Hall and continue with a new lawyer, a move that could delay a corruption trial originally scheduled to start last month, according to a federal court filing late Wednesday.

The firing comes one month before Johnson’s trial Aug. 22, the latest in a new wave of public corruption scandals to hit Metro Detroit in the years since former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and 40 others were convicted of federal corruption crimes.

“Clearly, there has been a breakdown in the relationship...” Hall wrote in the filing. “Obviously, Mr. Johnson and other family members who are attorneys have a plan of action that the undersigned is not privy to.”

Hall asked U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman late Wednesday for permission to withdraw from the high-profile case. The judge will hold a hearing Tuesday in federal court.

Johnson declined to discuss his legal representation on Thursday, telling The Detroit News, “I’m not going to comment on that.” He also declined to discuss any details of the case.

Hall’s request to withdraw from the case comes more than one month after Leitman delayed the trial to give Johnson’s legal team more time to prepare and investigate a government witness’ background.

Hall can quit the case, but don’t delay the trial, prosecutors said in a filing Thursday.

Johnson’s dissatisfaction with Hall appears to be a delay tactic, considering the defense has not filed any pretrial motions, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley wrote.

The case is not complex and evidence amounts to one secret recording, 26 law enforcement reports, three search warrant affidavits and a variety of records from the state, banks and cellphone companies, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors plan to call about 12 witnesses over two or three days during the trial.

The public deserves a speedy trial considering Johnson is an elected public official, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson said in opposing the delay.

Johnson, 43, is facing conspiracy and theft charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. The indictment alleges he conspired to steal public money between March 2014 and January 2015.

The Highland Park Democrat was arraigned April 18 after a federal grand jury indicted him on accusations he put a ghost employee on the state payroll to repay her for a personal loan.

Johnson’s attorneys said they intend to retain one or two forensic accounting experts and a private investigator to analyze the evidence, which includes the recording made by his alleged ghost employee Glynis Thornton and materials seized in raids on his Highland Park home and Senate office.

Johnson borrowed at least $14,000 in cash from Thornton and later hired her as a community liaison, according to court records. The no-show job was merely a way for Johnson to pay off the debt, the government alleges.

Thornton, who pleaded guilty in a separate public corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit, was cooperating with authorities and secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015.

She is awaiting sentencing and is expected to testify against Johnson.

Johnson, who has a history of financial struggles and legal fights over unpaid bills, is paid a $71,685 annual salary as a state senator.

Johnson is free on bond and remains in office.

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Jonathan Oosting contributed