Spare Johnson prison for corruption scheme, lawyer says

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
State Sen. Bert Johnson pleaded guilty Friday to a federal theft crime and could spend up to one year in prison after admitting he conspired to steal more than $23,000 from taxpayers.

Detroit — Disgraced former state Sen. Bert Johnson should be spared prison because he has a long track record of public service, is remorseful and has family obligations, his lawyer said.

Johnson should be sentenced to probation and home confinement for stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers by adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll, defense lawyer John Shea argued in a federal court filing late Thursday.

Home confinement would let Johnson continue to serve as primary caretaker of his mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and continue to raise two school-age children, his lawyer wrote.

The 44-year-old Highland Park Democrat will be sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman. Prosecutors want Johnson to spend up to one year in federal prison, saying he cheated taxpayers and stole money to pay off debts.

Johnson's good deeds outweigh the bad, Shea 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.

"The larger point is that the good he has done and the value he has provided far outweigh the mistakes he has made," Shea said. "There is no question that Mr. Johnson’s offense was serious: a democratic society, which relies on public officials’ performance of their duties honestly and in good faith especially as it relates to public monies, cannot countenance theft by those officials of those monies."

The mistakes are well-publicized. 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

"The court should know that, during that period of time, Mr. Johnson suffered a horrific accident involving a snowblower," Shea wrote. "He required nine surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation to recover most of the use of his mangled hand."

Several people wrote letters to the judge praising Johnson, including at least one Detroit City council member. The letters have not been publicly disclosed.

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 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.

Glynis Thornton

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

"It can be difficult to demonstrate remorse in a concrete fashion, but one way is to try and make things right," Shea wrote. "In this case, Mr. Johnson has suffered a severe penalty in resigning his office. He has been held up to ridicule and contempt. This all may be justified, but that does not lessen the fact that he has suffered that severe penalty.

"He is ashamed and remorseful, while at the same time recommitted to living the upright life that characterized him prior to this offense." 

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