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Sen. Johnson working to quash bench warrant in legal dispute

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State Sen. Bert Johnson is working to resolve a bench warrant issued Wednesday for his arrest in Cook County, Ill. over an unpaid political fundraisng bill, his attorney said Thursday.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Alexander P. White issued a contempt of court order Wednesday against Johnson with a $25,000 bond requirement if the senator is arrested.

The judge issued the bench warrant after Johnson failed to appear in a Chicago courtroom Wednesday for a hearing that his attorney said they were unaware of.

Chicago-based Paladin Political Group is trying to collect on a $21,983.37 judgment against Johnson for political fund-raising work in 2013 when Johnson was mulling a bid for Congress or seeking re-election to the 2nd Senate District in Wayne County.

"We've been in communication with the plaintiffs lawyers, and we're trying to make our best efforts to resolve it," said Amir Makled, a Dearborn attorney representing Johnson.

Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, was not planning to immediately travel to Chicago to resolve the contempt of court order, Makled said.

The Detroit News first reported on the bench warrant for Johnson's arrest Wednesday evening after obtaining a copy of the order and verifying it with the judge's clerk and an attorney for firm that sued Johnson.

Johnson was late to Senate session Thursday and left the chamber before reporters could ask him questions about the bench warrant.

Christopher Hales, an attorney for Chicago-based Paladin Political Group, sought the contempt order after Johnson failed to submit documentation about his ability to pay the $21,983.37 judgment.

Johnson was unaware of the contempt order when contacted Wednesday by The News.

"That I didn't know," he said.

Johnson's attorney said the contempt order was improper and that the Paladin Political Group should be pursuing payment through a Michigan court.

"Apparently they're filing documents without our knowledge in Cook County," Makled said Wednesday. "We had no idea that these proceedings were going on."

In mid-December, a Cook County jury awarded Paladin Political Group the $21,983.37 sum for expenses related to its fund-raising activities on Johnson's behalf after a two-day trial, Hales said.

"They really did a bunch of nothing," Johnson told The News.

Dave Seman, owner of the Paladin Political Group, said it was Johnson who did not put in the work of calling prospective donors.

"Bert would just not be pinned down to any time commitment," Seman told The News. "He wouldn't put in the time required to run for higher office."

Seman said he had an employee based in Detroit for most of 2013, trying to help Johnson raise money for his 2014 state Senate re-election campaign or a second bid for Congress in the 14th Congressional District.

"He made a commitment to pay and he never paid — so we took him to court," said Seman, a Democratic political consultant.

The jury's judgment is less than $29,000-plus attorney fees that the political consulting firm had sought, Hales said.

"We have not received a dime," Hales said Wednesday. "His defense was that the services that were provided were either inadequate or not provided at all."

Johnson's jury trial occurred Dec. 16-17 — the final days of the Legislature's lame-duck session. Johnson had an excused absence on both days, according to the Senate's journal.

The jury found that Johnson did not breach his contract, but that Paladin Political Group was entitled to be paid its expenses, Makled said.

The judge's contempt order means Johnson could be arrested if he's pulled over for speeding or any other traffic stop, Hales said. He disputed that Johnson or his attorney were unaware of his efforts to get a contempt order.

Johnson promised to submit his tax returns and other financial information to the Cook County court by April 9, Hales said.

"Mr. Johnson had made contact with us seeking additional time to provide additional documentation about his finances," Hales said. "We never received anything."

Johnson told The News he's still disputing the amount owed to the firm.

"It will be the subject of an appeal," Johnson said Wednesday.

In 2012, Johnson ran unsuccessfully for the 13th Congressional District seat in a five-person Democratic primary with incumbent U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., who won.

In 2014, Johnson was Conyers' campaign manager and was re-elected to a second four-year term in the state Senate.

Johnson represents the 2nd Senate District, which stretches from southwest Detroit through the city's east side and includes Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the Pointes.

Detroit News Staff Writer Gary Heinlein contributed.

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