Source: Johnson probe involves EAA scandal target

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – An ongoing investigation of state Sen. Bert Johnson’s payroll practices involves questions about a former staffer who was later convicted in a corruption probe of the Detroit Education Achievement Authority, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

Glynis Thornton was set for sentencing on a felony bribery charge Feb. 2 in the EAA case, but the hearing was delayed without explanation and no make-up date has been set.

Thornton’s name was on a list of state Senate employees obtained by Gongwer News Service, which reported she worked for Johnson as of Dec. 31, 2014, and was paid $20 an hour at the time. It’s not clear how long Thornton held the position, but the Senate Business Office is expected to release requested records later this week.

One Lansing source said other Senate staff rarely saw Thornton and only realized she worked for Johnson “many months” after she was hired.

Thornton’s attorney, Gerald Evelyn, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Johnson did not immediately return a call, but he has denied knowledge of any specific wrongdoing. He has said he was hiring an attorney in response to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Michigan State Police raids on Monday of his Highland Park home and Lansing office.

The Detroit News reported Tuesday that investigators are looking into possible hiring and payroll irregularities in Johnson’s office. Johnson’s former chief of staff, Eric Pate, said this week he received a subpoena but declined further comment.

Thornton was one of three people indicted by a federal grand jury in late 2015 on charges they conspired to take EAA school funds as part of a scheme involving an after-school tutoring company that also laundered money.

She was convicted of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery. Her sentencing was delayed in September 2016 due to a medical problems outlined by her attorney.

Authorities may soon return to Lansing in the Johnson investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit has served the Senate with a “notice of intent” to search an office storage area the Highland Park Democrat may have used, Senate spokeswoman Amber McCann confirmed Wednesday.

In the EAA case, a Detroit federal grand jury indicted Thornton along with Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp and Paulette Horton on charges they conspired to take school funds to enrich themselves.

Thornton’s company, Making a Difference Everyday (“MADE”), provided after school tutoring services at Mumford and Denby high schools, where Snapp was the principal in 2012-14. Snapp selected MADE as the after-school tutoring vendor for both EAA high schools in exchange for Thornton paying Snapp kickbacks, according to the grand jury indictment.

Thornton allegedly disguised payments to Snapp by having checks issued payable to Horton’s company, rather than paying Snapp directly. Horton would then deposit and withdraw the money and give it to Snapp, according to the indictment. Snapp took $58,000 in kickbacks in the scheme, according to federal officials.

Thornton pleaded guilty to the charge and was told she faced 24 to 30 months in prison. But after cooperating with prosecutors in their investigation into the EAA and Detroit Public Schools, the government is recommending a sentence of 15 months.

In June, a federal judge sentenced Snapp to 12 months and one day in prison, while Horton, an independent contractor working for MADE, was sentenced to 15 months in prison after she cooperated with the public corruption investigation.

The federal notice of another potential search in Lansing focuses on the basement of the Boji Tower, which is across the street from the Capitol and former Senate offices in the Farnum Building. Items that Johnson and colleagues may have stored in the area were not moved when senators switched offices earlier this year, McCann said.

The notice of intent does not guarantee law enforcement will search the storage area, but it says “they’re aware of the additional space and are asking the Senate Business Office to preserve the contents of that space,” she said.

McCann said senators typically use the basement area to store “unremarkable items” like excess citizens guides, newsletters or other materials they don’t need in their offices on a daily basis.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, has said search warrants issued for Johnson’s home and office indicate that “prosecutors have probable cause that a crime took place.”

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.

Johnson was convicted of armed robbery as a teenager and has spoken openly about the arrest. He has a more recent 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.

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund on Wednesday called on Senate Democratic leaders to request that Johnson be removed from committee assignments and stripped of staff after the Monday raids.

But Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is not forcing the issue.

“We have no plans at this point to change anything about Sen. Johnson’s office, his committee assignments, his budget,” McCann said. “Sen. Johnson has not been accused of a crime that we’re aware of, so there’s no reason for us to alter anything.”