Feds have secret recording of Johnson, ‘ghost employee’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Prosecutors plan to use state Sen. Bert Johnson’s own words against him in court, according to a new filing indicating they have a secret recording of the Highland Park Democrat speaking with the alleged “ghost employee” he put on the government payroll.

A notice filed Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit says prosecutors have a “consensual recording” of former aide Glynis Thornton speaking with Johnson on Nov. 19, 2015, roughly 10 months after she left his staff.

Michigan is a single consent state for recording conversations, which means Thornton was likely cooperating with authorities and recorded the discussion to try to draw out information from Johnson, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

“Recordings can be very powerful evidence, because it gets the defendant in an unguarded moment when they think they’re having a private conversation that is not private,” Henning said. “It’s used a lot in corruption cases and also in white-collar cases like insider trading.”

Johnson is accused of hiring Thornton — who was unnamed in the original indictment — on his state Senate staff to repay her for personal loans she had given him. She earned $23,134 in taxpayer money for work she did not perform, according to a federal grand jury indictment.

Thornton is a former educator who has pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit. She has worked with prosecutors as a cooperating witness and her sentencing has been delayed.

Dearborn attorney Cyril Hall, who is representing Johnson in the case, was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. He said last week his client is not guilty and has argued that Thornton is not a credible witness.

The discovery notice filed Wednesday is the first glimpse at evidence federal prosecutors will try to use against Johnson, who was indicted April 13 on conspiracy theft charges.

The evidence list includes documents and records obtained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state police during joint raids on Johnson’s Highland Park home and Lansing office on March 27, along with a separate search of a Senate storage vault two days later.

The government also plans to have one or more experts testify at trial regarding a forensic examination of Thornton’s cellphone, according to the discovery document, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Frances Lee Carlson and J. Michael Buckley.

Getting Thornton to record a conversation with Johnson is “standard practice” in cases where a cooperating witness is working the prosecutors, Henning said.

“The government baits the trap,” he said.

Senate Business Office records show Thornton worked for Johnson between March 28, 2014, and Jan. 1, 2015. The conversation between her and Johnson was recorded in November of 2015, just weeks before Thornton was indicted in the separate EAA probe.

The recording could help Thornton get a lighter sentence in that case.

“This is the kind of cooperation that prosecutors will tout to the judge, because it is so effective,” Henning said of the recording. “The defendant’s own words can be very powerful.”

Johnson missed a Senate session last week as he was arraigned in Detroit but has otherwise been showing up to work in Lansing, including Wednesday. He has referred all questions about the case to his attorney.

The Board of State Canvassers on Wednesday approved the form of a recall petition against Johnson submitted by Highland Park activist Robert Davis, allowing him to circulate it for signatures.

Johnson has served in the Legislature since 2007. He won election to the upper chamber in 2010 and cruised to re-election in 2014. He ran for the U.S. House in 2012 but finished fourth in a Democratic primary dominated by incumbent Rep. John Conyers of Detroit.

Johnson served eight months in prison as a teenager after pleading guilty in a 1993 break-in and armed robbery at the Oakland Hills Country Club, but he has since worked to rehabilitate his image and reputation, sharing his self-described redemption story in a series of recent community speeches.

But the senator has struggled with personal and professional financial issues. State records show Johnson paid off $3,000 in campaign finance penalties this month but is facing new questions from the state over a check he used to pay a court judgment in 2012.