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Records: Johnson aide linked to EAA kickbacks made $24K

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson hired an office staffer around the same time she was providing kickbacks to a Detroit school principal, according to records released Thursday showing Glynis Thornton earned $24,092 during her roughly nine months in Johnson’s office.

Federal authorities are investigating Johnson for payroll irregularities and ties to Thornton, who worked for him but was rarely seen by other Senate staffers, according to a source familiar with the situation. Thornton later pleaded guilty to a felony bribery charge as part of a wide-ranging federal corruption probe of Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority.

Johnson’s attorney Cyris Hall confirmed Thursday that Thornton worked for the Highland Park Democrat but denied his client did anything wrong by hiring her.

“You can employ anybody that’s qualified, and in his tenure in Lansing he’s probably employed over 40 people,” Hall told The Detroit News. “And I’m sure if they look at all 40 people, and I’m sure they will, then they’ll find out those individuals were properly employed who were working.”

Records provided by the Senate Business Office show Johnson has employed 18 staffers since winning election to the upper chamber in 2011. Thornton worked for him from March 28, 2014, to Jan. 2, 2015.

Thornton earned $20 per hour in her nine-month tenure at the state Senate, which overlapped with the tail end of her admitted participation in a kickback scheme involving former EAA principal Kenyatta Snapp.

Thornton used her Southfield-based tutoring company to pay Snapp about $58,000 as a reward for being given a vendor contract for Detroit two high schools, according to court records. At least two checks were deposited in March and April of 2014, according to court documents indicating the kickbacks continued through July of that year.

Johnson has struggled with financial issues, including unpaid bills and campaign finance penalties, but he is not facing any charges and has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in cooperation with Michigan State Police, raided Johnson’s Highland Park home and Lansing office on Monday but declined to discuss what they were looking for.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit has also filed a “notice of intent” with the Senate to search a storage space Johnson may have used in the basement of a Lansing office tower.

Hall said he and Johnson do not yet understand the full scope of the probe, but he made clear his client is willing to work with authorities.

“They’re investigating the state senator, and we know that (Thornton) was an employee,” he said. “They have a right to investigate. I’m assuming they have some information that leads the in that direction, and we’re prepared to cooperate with them to counter that.”

Thornton was indicted in late 2015 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit federal program bribery in early 2016 after reaching an agreement in a case that also led to the conviction of Snapp, who had driven a Maserati with a “GUCCI1” license plate but gave away the car in the midst of the FBI probe.

Thornton allegedly paid Snapp through a consulting firm owned by colleague Paulette Horton, who would go to the bank with Snapp. The former principal would wait outside in a vehicle while checks were cashed before collecting approximately 90 percent of the funds.

Hall said he does not know how or if the EAA kickback case is related to the Johnson probe and declined to say whether Thornton provided any loans to Johnson, citing private conversations with his client.

He said Johnson is “innocent” of any wrongdoing. The state senator has not been subpoenaed or called to testify before a grand jury, he said, noting that grand jury investigations are intentionally secretive.

“We’re just baffled this matter is being litigated in the press, but so be it,” Hall said.

Thornton’s attorney, Gerald Evelyn, did not return a call seeking comment on Thursday.

Johnson’s former chief of staff, Eric Pate, said this week he received a subpoena but declined to discuss details. Pate subsequently refused to say whether he had been called to testify before a grand jury or if he had worked with Thornton in Johnson’s office.

Thornton originally faced 24 to 30 months in prison in the EAA case. But after she cooperated with prosecutors, the government recommended 15 months. Her sentencing was delayed in September 2016 due to apparent medical issues. The hearing was rescheduled for early February but did not happen and no new date has been set.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said sentencing delays often mean the defendant is providing additional information in an ongoing investigation.

“When someone is cooperating, prosecutors want to delay the sentencing as a carrot to get continued cooperation,” Henning said Thursday. “So it may well signal she’s helping out (in the Johnson probe), but we can’t know for sure right now.”

Warrants issued for Johnson’s home and office indicate that authorities have “probable cause” to believe a crime occurred, he said, “and it looks like it would involve Sen. Johnson.”

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.

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.