Johnson pays $3K in penalties as state probes check

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson is working to pay off a series of campaign finance penalties but is facing new questions over a campaign check he wrote in 2012.

Johnson’s financial woes – both personal and professional – have been thrust into the spotlight as he faces federal conspiracy and theft charges for allegedly hiring a “ghost employee” to pay her back for a personal loan.

In a new development, the Michigan Bureau of Elections is seeking answers from the Highland Park Democrat after The Detroit News reported he used his campaign checkbook to pay a court judgment levied against him in 2012, a potential violation of state law.

Bureau disclosure division analyst Michele Martin asked Johnson in an April 11 letter to explain the $1,500 expenditure, which he listed in state filings as a “consulting” payment to Eric Foster.

He cut the check to pay off part of a $2,500 judgment after Foster McCollum White and Associates of Troy sued him, alleging he hired the consulting firm in 2010 but did not pay on time. Johnson noted the court order in the memo field on the check, according to a copy obtained by The News.

The elections bureau is now requesting additional information about the check, telling Johnson he must describe it “in terms which make it clear that the expenditure was related to your nomination or election.”

The state also asked Johnson to provide a copy of the check, a copy of the original invoice for the consulting services he reported and a statement verifying what the services were for, including what office he was seeking at the time.

The bureau sent Johnson the letter the same day his candidate committee paid off $3,000 in late fees through three $1,000 payments to the state.

As The News reported last month, Johnson has not filed required campaign finance disclosure forms since early 2016 and had accumulated $4,000 in penalties. With last week’s payment, he now owes $1,000, said Secretary of State Spokesman Fred Woodhams.

A “Consensus PAC” political action committee linked to Johnson and started by a former staffer has also racked up $11,775 in late fees, a balance that remains unpaid.

The 2012 check under review was not the last instance where Johnson would try to use his campaign account to satisfy a court settlement. In early 2015, he used his Bert Johnson Committee State Senate checkbook in an attempt to pay off part of an office rental bill from 2010.

Johnson was not able to pay off that debt through his campaign, however, because the $2,205 check bounced.

Southfield debt-collection attorney Ryan Fishman filed a police complaint against Johnson in April of that year, detailing the bounced check. Johnson eventually paid off the full $7,446 judgment awarded to Progressive Poletown Properties with a certified check, the attorney said.

“Our client was apparently among the fortunate few to ever be able to recoup what they lost when he owed them money,” Fishman said Thursday.

Johnson still 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 he has still not paid off the debt.

A federal grand jury indicted Johnson on April 11, accusing him of stealing more than $23,000 from the state by hiring an employee who did little work for him to pay back personal loans she had given him.

Johnson was arraigned Tuesday in Detroit, where his attorney said he was not guilty. He returned to work Wednesday at the state Capitol but declined to speak with The News.