Sen. Bert Johnson faces recall petition over indictment

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson is facing a potential recall effort two days after his indictment by a federal jury on conspiracy theft charges.

Litigious activist Robert Davis, a former felon himself, filed petition language Thursday with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

The recall petition cites Tuesday’s federal indictment against Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, who is accused of hiring a “ghost employee” on his staff in Lansing. The “community liaison” allegedly earned $23,134 in taxpayer money for work she did not perform.

Federal authorities believe Johnson hired the employee to repay personal loans she had given him. While she was not named, details in the indictment make clear the staffer is Glynis Thornton, a former educator who has pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

Johnson has not been convicted of any crime, but “I think it’s important for the citizens of the senator’s district to make a determination as to whether or not they have confidence in him to proceed in light of the fact he has indicated he has no intention to resign,” Davis told The Detroit News.

Johnson did not immediately respond to a voicemail. His attorney, Cyril Hall, was not immediately available to comment on the recall petition but said Tuesday his client does not plan to resign and intends to fight the charges in court.

The Michigan Board of Canvassers has up to 20 days to consider whether the recall petition is fit for circulation and signature, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams. The Bureau of Elections informed Davis the board would meet to consider his petition on April 26.

Davis, who has filed multiple recall petitions in the past, also filed language for three additional petitions seeking to recall Gov. Rick Snyder over the Flint water crisis. Davis and other critics have attempted to recall the Republican governor before without success.

Changes to Michigan law approved in 2012 made it harder for citizens to recall elected officials by limiting signature collection to a 60-day window, down from 90 days.

To force a recall election for a state legislator, petitioners must collect 25 percent of the votes cast in the legislator’s district in the last general election. For Johnson, 14,474 constituents would have to sign the petition to force an election because 57,894 voted in his 2014 state Senate election, which he won with more than 71 percent of the vote.

Davis, who filed the new recall petitions Thursday, was sentenced in December 2014 to 18 months in prison for embezzling almost $200,000 from the cash-strapped Highland Park school district.

“I’m not judging him,” Davis said of Johnson. “Everyone has their day in court, and certainly I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I’ve been in his shoes.”

Davis said he wished the embattled senator well as the legal process plays out, but “I think that at this critical time, while he’s undergoing this process, the citizens of his senatorial district should have an option to decide what they want to do.”