Probe may upend Bert Johnson’s redemption story

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Bert Johnson was preparing to leave prison more than two decades ago when — as he recounts it — a corrections officer casually told him, “I’ll see you when you get back.”

The Highland Park Democrat, now a second-term state senator who also served four years in the Michigan House, says he vowed then that the next time he returned to prison would be as someone “representing folks” and helping those inside — not as a repeat offender.

The anecdote, which Johnson has told to promote his recent “unchained” speech series, has been cast in a new light as federal authorities investigate the 43-year-old politician for payroll irregularities in his Lansing office, threatening to upend his self-described redemption story.

Johnson spent eight months behind bars and three years on probation after pleading guilty in a 1993 break-in and armed robbery at the Oakland Hills Country Club. He was a teen at the time of the crime. Twenty-four years later, he is a senior member of the state Senate aspiring to higher office.

“You can’t change the past, but you can damn well change the future, and I’m proud of what he’s accomplished and what he’s overcome,” said former Highland Park Mayor Linsey Porter, who lived on the same block as Johnson for nearly two decades.

“I believe in Bert’s integrity. I know there’s times we all have stumbled and fell, but I bet my last dollar he’ll fight 15 rounds. The community is behind him.”

Johnson’s path from teen convict to elder statesman has not been a straight line. Since taking office, he has been caught driving on a suspended license, feuded with consultants and racked up unpaid bills, failed to file campaign finance reports and missed more votes in Lansing than any other state senator.

But he has been legislatively productive and remained popular with constituents. Many political observers argue he has been positioning himself for a second congressional run when 87-year-old U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, retires.

“I’ve encourage Bert to run,” said the Rev. Horace Sheffield, a Detroit activist who lost to Conyers in the 2014 Democratic primary. “Bert is brilliant. I think he does his homework. His work in Lansing has often connected to problems that exist here.”

From prison to politics

Johnson first came to Lansing in the early 2000s and worked as chief of staff to then-Rep. Bill McConico, D-Detroit.

Term limits forced McConico out of office at the end of 2007, and Johnson won a 12-candidate primary to succeed him in the heavily Democratic state House District 5. He went on to win election to the upper chamber in 2010 and cruise to re-election in 2014.

His Senate District 2 stretches from southwest Detroit through the city’s east side and includes Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the Pointes.

Johnson is a “very conscientious legislator” with a “great feel for the people of his district,” said former state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr., D-Detroit, who worked with Johnson in the House.

“I don’t know what his current legal issues are, but I can tell you this: My impression of the senator was that he had truly turned himself around and that he was trying to do what a responsible citizen would do.”

In between state Senate campaigns, Johnson lost a 2012 bid for the U.S. House, finishing fourth in a Democratic primary dominated by Conyers. Instead of challenging the venerable incumbent again, Johnson chaired Conyers’ re-election campaign in 2014 after the congressman was initially thrown off the primary ballot for having too many invalid petition signatures but was restored to the ballot following a legal challenge.

Detroit political strategist Adolph Mongo said Johnson has made a name for himself by being accessible to people in his district, “but right now, I don’t think he’s thinking about anything other than this black cloud that’s hanging over his head.”

Cloud hangs over politician

That cloud took shape last month when the FBI and Michigan State Police raided Johnson’s Lansing office and his Highland Park home — considered a “national treasure” by locals, Porter said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit also notified the state Senate of plans to search a storage area Johnson used near the Capitol.

Authorities have declined to discuss the nature of their investigation, but sources say the probe involves Johnson’s office payroll and former staffer Glynis Thornton, who was convicted last year in a kickback scheme resulting from a widespread corruption probe of Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority.

Johnson has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing and has hired an attorney to represent him. Johnson has declined comment on the investigation.

The probe comes amid continued financial problems for Johnson, who owes the Chicago-based Paladin Political Group more than $29,000 for 2013 fundraising work. His failure to pay a court-ordered judgment prompted a bench warrant for his arrest in 2015, which he resolved, but Paladin Political Group says he still hasn’t paid up.

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

The Southfield-based Foster McCollum White and Associates consulting firm sued Johnson in 2012, alleging he stiffed it on a $10,000 bill and then hurt the business by badmouthing it as the firm sought another contract. A court eventually ordered Johnson to pay $2,500, but it took 15 months for him to settle the debt.

“He’s definitely a shyster,” said attorney Edward Bajoka, who represented the consulting firm in the suit. “This guy was a jerk, and he should not be a state senator or representing anyone.”

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 had been unable to collect in 2011 because Johnson owed child support to multiple women in Oakland and Wayne counties.

“It just looks like he’s being overwhelmed,” said Mongo, a longtime Detroit political insider and early Johnson supporter. “You need to be able to settle those debts, especially when you’re dealing with consultants.”

More recently, Johnson has failed to disclose campaign finances as required under state law, accumulating nearly $16,000 in late fees between his candidate committee and a political action fund.

Michigan secretary of state records show Johnson’s official candidate committee failed to file three required reports in 2016 and the first report of 2017. The committee owes $4,000 in late fees, including $1,000 that has been reported to the Treasury Department in an attempt to force collection.

The “Consensus PAC” linked to Johnson and started by a former staffer owes $11,775. The Secretary of State’s Office has referred $9,775 of that amount to the state Treasury Department for collections.

“It’s a tough thing to see he’s had so much trouble in that area,” Sheffield said. “I stand by my bedrock belief that Bert is a good person, and anything that happened here was certainly not something of criminal intent. Maybe of financial neglect, I don’t know.”

Missed votes in Lansing

Johnson’s tenure in Lansing was controversial before it even began. Former House Speaker Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, considered not seating Johnson in the state House because of his felony criminal record, but the Highland Park Democrat was sworn in and seated by January 2007.

Three months later, Johnson was spotted leaving the state Capitol behind the wheel of a 2001 Jaguar even though he had a suspended license and an invalid plate. The freshman legislator quickly paid off outstanding driver responsibility fees and had his driver license reinstated.

Since winning election to the state Senate in 2011, Johnson has sponsored 11 bills that have been signed into law, a healthy number for a member of the minority party.

The laws have helped pave the way for the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, created a task force to track sexual assault evidence kits and given cities more tools to fight blight.

Johnson has been productive despite having the worst attendance record in the state Legislature. Over the past seven years, no state legislator has skipped more votes than Johnson, who has missed 712 of 5,115 roll calls, according to data compiled by

Johnson a go-to guy

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has worked with Johnson on multiple bills and said they’ve maintained a good working relationship despite a 2015 feud over language in a Juneteenth resolution commemorating the end of U.S. slavery. Johnson decried late changes to the resolution as an act of “white privilege.”

“I’m a former sheriff, and he’s a former inmate, but I was surprised as I got to know him how intelligent he is, how thoughtful he is, and I think that from everything I know, he’s done a decent job of representing his district,” Jones said.

Jones said he doesn’t approve of missing votes, but it’s “up to the voters to decide” if it’s an issue, and voters re-elected Johnson in 2014.

Durhal said it is important for legislators to be in Lansing every day, especially if they are in the minority party, because the majority can put bills up for a vote without much notice. But he didn’t recall Johnson missing any critical votes.

Instead, he recalls Johnson playing a strong and supportive role when the Legislative Black Caucus that Durhal chaired sued the Republican-led Legislature and governor over new political district boundary lines in 2011, a suit they lost.

“He’s brilliant, no question about that,” said Durhal, who carpooled to Lansing with Johnson when he was still working for McConico. “He has the ability to formulate ideas, to think outside the box and to coalesce with people.”

When Porter needed help for Highland Park in Lansing, his first call was Johnson, whom he described as an “avid researcher” who “would ask the questions that needed to be asked.”

Porter, the former Highland Park mayor, said Johnson quickly made a name for himself while working for McConico. When he needed local assistance from Lansing, he turned to Johnson.

“Bert was the one I would call,” Porter said. “No disrespect to Rep. McConico, but Bert just has a way with people.”

Johnson returned to Lansing last week despite the ongoing federal investigation. He and his attorney have not discussed specifics of the probe, but they’ve vowed to cooperate.

“I’m an open book,” Johnson told reporters. “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.”

Bert Johnson

Age: 43

Family: Single

Residence: Highland Park

Political experience: Chief of staff for state Rep. Bill McConico, D-Detroit, 2001-06. State representative for House District 5, 2007-10. State senator for Michigan Senate District 2, 2011-present