Sen. Bert Johnson's check raises questions

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – State Sen. Bert Johnson used his campaign committee checkbook to pay a court judgment levied against him as an individual, a potential violation of Michigan law and the latest in his string of campaign finance problems.

The Highland Park Democrat was sued in 2012 by Foster McCollum White and Associates, a Troy-based political consulting firm he hired in 2010 but did not pay on time. The firm claimed Johnson’s tab topped $10,000 and sought additional monetary damages for alleged defamation.

Johnson disputed the debt and successfully fought the defamation claims, but a jury ultimately awarded the firm $2,500. He was ordered to pay an additional $621.07 in court fees, plus interest, bringing the total judgment to $3,156.77.

Johnson paid off roughly half that amount – $1,500 – by cutting a check from his state Senate campaign account on May 29, 2014. The check was made out to consultants Eric Foster, Jacqueline McCollum and the Bajoka Law Group in Troy.

Johnson wrote on the check that it was for “fees / standard – ct. order.” He reported it in a 2014 campaign finance disclosure statement as a consulting fee.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Act usually prohibits a candidate committee from spending its money to defend an elected or appointed official in a criminal or civil action, or to pay legal costs arising from those actions. There are exceptions, however, and secretary of state spokesman Fred Woodhams declined to speculate whether Johnson violated the act by paying off a judgment.

“Bureau of Elections staff would have to review the facts of each individual case before giving an answer,” Woodhams said. “Paying a political consultant with campaign funds is something that is allowed and is widely done.”

Johnson did not return a call from The Detroit News. His attorney, Cyril Hall of Dearborn, was not available for comment.

Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said it is not clear whether Johnson violated state law by using his candidate committee to pay a legal judgment owed to a political consultant.

But “clearly Sen. Johnson has shown an utter disregard for the campaign finance laws of this state, so the fact he might be playing fast and loose with them shouldn’t be surprising,” Mauger said.

Johnson’s unpaid bills and compiling campaign finance issues have come under increased scrutiny since the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Michigan State Police last Monday raided his Highland Park home and Lansing office. Authorities did not say what they were looking for and have declined to discuss what one spokesperson called an “ongoing investigation.”

A source familiar with the probe said it involves possible payroll irregularities in Johnson’s office and employment of Glynis Thornton, a former staffer who was later convicted of federal program bribery as part of a a wide-ranging corruption probe of Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority.

Thornton, who admitted participating in an EAA kickback scheme between April 2013 and July 2014, worked for Johnson between March 2014 and January 2015. Johnson was flagged for several campaign finance omissions during that time, but there’s no indication the matters are related.

Edward Bajoka, an attorney who represented the Foster McCollum White firm in its lawsuit against Johnson, said the state senator bounced checks to his clients before they took him to court.

The lawsuit also accused Johnson of ridiculing the firm when it bid for consulting work with the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus in 2011, arguing he made “defamatory remarks” because he did not want his colleagues to find out about his unpaid bills from 2010.

“This was a real ordeal,” Bajoka said. “My clients actually ended up going out of business, and these are good people, and they did good work. I’m not going to say it was a direct result of this, but I think he really hurt their ability to get other work the way he badmouthed them.”

Johnson paid off the judgment balance in October 2014, nearly four years after hiring the firm and more than a year after the court order. Bajoka did not have a paper record of the transaction but recalls Johnson may have paid him in cash after he filed a wage garnishment notice with the state.

Johnson has struggled with other unpaid bills as well.

The senator owes a Chicago-based fundraising firm more than $29,000 for work it did for him in 2013, when he was considering whether to run for Congress or seek re-election in Senate District 2. His failure to pay a court-ordered judgment in that case prompted a bench warrant for his arrest in 2015, which he resolved, but the company says he has still not paid any of his debt.

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. The company couldn’t collect in 2011 because Johnson owed child support to multiple women in Wayne and Oakland counties.

Johnson has not filed a campaign finance disclosure report with the state since early 2016. He has missed three deadlines and accumulated $4,000 in late fees, including $1,000 the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office has referred to the Treasury Department for collections.

A “Consensus PAC” political action committee linked to Johnson and started by a former staffer has racked up $11,775 in late fees. Of that, $9,775 has so far been referred to Treasury in an attempt to force collections.

The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office has hit Johnson’s candidate campaign committee with five notices of error or omission since 2014, and issued more than 50 failure to file or late filing fee notices.

“Just filing a report is the lowest level of compliance, and he’s not even hitting that bar, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he didn’t hit the higher tiers of compliance, either,” Mauger said.