Sources: FBI, State Police probe Johnson on payroll

Jonathan Oosting, and George Hunter
The Detroit News

Lansing – State Sen. Bert Johnson is the subject of an investigation into payroll and hiring irregularities at his Lansing office, two sources familiar with the probe told The Detroit News.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Michigan State Police conducted joint raids at Johnson’s Highland Park home and Lansing Senate office on Monday morning. Neither agency provided any details about the raids or the search.

Johnson returned to work Tuesday at the Michigan Capitol, where he denied knowledge of any specific wrongdoing but said he was hiring an attorney in response to the raids.

“We’re going to figure it out,” Johnson told reporters. “… And after obtaining counsel, I’m sure they’re going to be able to make some public statements, but at this point, it’s really just an investigation on my part as much as it may be on their’s.”

The search warrants indicate the situation is “serious,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and a former federal prosecutor.

“It means the investigation has gotten to the point that prosecutors have probable cause that a crime took place. It is more than a suspicion.”

The federal government is involved because it polices state and local officials, Henning said.

“If Bert Johnson is accused of taking money from the state, that can be a federal crime because he is a state official,” he said.

The raid also means the probe has advanced to a point where either information is missing and so investigators want to find it to fill in a gap, or they are concerned about the possible destruction of evidence, Henning said.

New details about the investigation emerged after Johnson’s former chief of staff and former campaign committee treasurer Eric Pate said Monday he was served with a subpoena.

Pate left his job at Johnson’s office Sept. 1, but would not say why. He declined further comment Tuesday.

Michigan senators are allotted a certain amount of funding to pay staff and manage their offices each year. Johnson was given $54,500 for office expenses in 2016, along with $117,100 for staff and benefits packages for two employees.

Summary records posted online show Johnson’s office spent $123,186.27 on staff last fiscal year after transferring an extra $6,086.27 from its office expense allowance.

The embattled Johnson said Tuesday he was “disappointed” by the raid at his home, telling reporters in Lansing he is “very concerned” for his family, including his mother and children.

Authorities spent more than an hour at the Johnson home on McLean off Woodward and about two hours at his Lansing office. Agents left the home with boxes and bagged items, putting them inside of a pickup in the driveway and in a car that was parked on the street.

Johnson said he was still trying to figure out what law enforcement officers were looking for.

“I’m an open book,” he said during a lull in Tuesday’s Senate session,. “I have no problem working with anyone. I’ve worked hard to build a reputation that I think people trust, and that’s why I’m here today.”

Johnson has a history of financial woes, including unpaid bills and tardy campaign finance reports, but said he does not think those problems prompted any legal wrongdoing on his part.

“No, and I’m going to let my attorneys talk about that,” he said. “That’s all I have to say.”

When asked about hiring practices in his office, Johnson reiterated he had said all he was going to say on the matter.

A bench warrant was issued for Johnson’s arrest in Illinois in 2015 as Chicago-based Paladin Political Group tried to collect on a $21,983.37 judgment against him for political fundraising work in 2013, when Johnson was considering whether to run for Congress or seek re-election to the state Senate.

Paladin has still not received any payment from Johnson, managing partner Dave Seman said Monday, adding that the politician probably owes his firm close to $25,000 at this point.

“We tried to put him under collections, but we were told to get in line,” Seman said.

In 2015, Johnson paid off a court-ordered $7,446 campaign office rental bill after a nearly five-year legal battle with the landlord, who evicted Johnson from his Hamtramck office space in 2010 for not making rent payments.

Secretary of State’s Office records indicate that Johnson has not filed three campaign finance reports for 2016 and has not filed the first 2017 report. As a result, he still owes $4,000 in late fees to the state after being sent multiple late fee notices by the state.

Unpaid late fees related to late campaign finance reports can be reported to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and referred to the Treasury Department for collections. So far, $1,000 of Johnson’s current late fees have been referred to the state for collections.

Johnson has missed 712 votes since 2011, the highest total in the Legislature, according to records compiled by

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Tuesday he would let the legal process play out before commenting on the matter.

“Everybody’s innocent until proven guilty,” Meekhof said. “It’s a legal matter between him and law enforcement.”

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he was “distressed” by news reports suggesting the investigations may be looking into Johnson’s payroll practices.

“I haven’t had any reason to go to his office, so I’ve never noticed if there’s nobody there,” said Jones. “He’s just not one of the more active people. He’s missed a lot of votes.”

Current community liaison staffer Tobias Smith, who joined Johnson in Lansing on Tuesday, told The News he had not received any subpoena and has “no clue” why the FBI searched his boss’ home and office.

Senate Republican spokeswoman Amber McCann said she was not aware of any subpoenas or warrants issued beyond the warrant for Monday’s raid. She had not read the warrant itself.

“The warrant was served on Sen. Johnson’s office, and I believe was left with Sen. Johnson’s office upon the FBI’s departure,” McCann said.

Staff Writer Michael Gerstein contributed