Apparent Bert Johnson recording: Truth a ‘huge problem’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State Sen. Bert Johnson warned his alleged “ghost employee” not to tell the truth about her job, saying it would be a “huge problem” for both of them, according to a conversation she secretly recorded in his Highland Park home.

Federal prosecutors have accused Johnson of hiring Glynis Thornton on the state payroll to pay back a personal loan she gave the Highland Park Democrat while allowing her to do no work for the state. Thornton allegedly earned $23,134 in taxpayer money.

A sealed search warrant application and supporting affidavit made public Thursday in federal court details a conversation between Thornton and Johnson in November 2015, months after she had left his staff but was cooperating with authorities while facing charges in a separate corruption probe.

In a sworn affidavit, FBI special agent Corey Burras said Thornton told Johnson several times she was concerned that she was paid by the state but never performed any work. Eventually Thornton suggested to Johnson that she be honest about their arrangement.

“Why couldn’t I just come clean?” Thornton asked Johnson, according to a partial transcript. “I would feel better then, if you come clean, it should be, it should be a wash. … I mean, what’s the prob — I mean, honest to God, what’s the problem?”

Johnson advised Thornton to say she worked for him on educational issues. He noted he is a public official and told her he is “not supposed to be a topic of conversation.”

Thornton again suggested she tell the truth and asked if she would be in trouble if she did so.

“Yeah,” Johnson said.

“Both of us?”

“Yeah,” he said.

A discovery notice filed Wednesday in federal court showed the federal government planned to use the secret recording against Johnson, who was indicted April 13 on conspiracy theft charges.

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

The partial transcript does not show Johnson himself discussing any details of their alleged arrangement, but the search warrant application details investigatory findings that led authorities last month to search his home and office.

The FBI and Michigan State Police seized computer equipment and documents from Johnson’s office, according to a search warrant receipt also unsealed Thursday. Their haul included 28 disks and seven floppy disks, Johnson’s 2014 1040 tax form, bank statements, letters and two discs containing network “data dumps” provided by the state.

Agent Burras’ affidavit supporting the warrant application makes clear that Thornton was working with federal officials and had agreed to cooperate with them as part of a plea deal in a separate public corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit.

Thornton told law enforcement officials that Johnson hired her on his Senate staff to repay a personal loan she had given him. They met in 2000 when she helped him with an election campaign and stayed in touch over the years, she said.

At one point “Johnson told her that he had a lot of influence and asked her why she had never asked for anything,” according to the unsealed warrant.

Thornton said Johnson first asked her for a $30,000 loan in October 2013 to pay for his son’s tuition at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Thornton refused but later that same month loaned him $10,000 in cash.

Johnson did not want to sign a promissory note “because he was a state senator and did not want a paper trail of the transaction,” according to the document.

Thornton said she began asking Johnson for repayment in February 2014. He wrote her two post-dated checks but later told her not to cash them because they would bounce, she said.

Thornton told authorities Johnson later told her he could get her a one-time payroll payment from the state to repay the $10,000 loan.

“Johnson told her that he had done the same thing in the past,” according to affidavit.

State records show Johnson put Thornton on the state payroll on March 28, 2014. She worked for him through Jan. 1, 2015, earning $20 an hour.

Thornton allegedly loaned Johnson another $4,000 while the arrangement continued. She had an employee at her education consulting firm write a company check to her own company, cash the check and then give the cash to Johnson. The employee, Paulette Horton, was interviewed by authorities and confirmed the arrangement.

“Horton further stated that at Thornton’s direction, she had (Johnson) count the cash in front of her before leaving.”

Horton was sentenced in June 2016 to 15 months in prison for conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and failure to file federal income taxes as part of a scheme at the EAA. Horton received the sentence after cooperating with the public corruption investigation.

Johnson requested another $3,000 in cash to pay his taxes in October 2014, said Thornton, who added he came to her home that day to collect.

An investigation by the FBI and the Wayne County Treasurer’s office shows Johnson paid $4,300 in property taxes on his Highland Park home on Oct. 27, 2014.

Burass said Johnson’s former legislative director, Brianna Egan, told investigators she recalled meeting Thornton on two possible occasions but was not aware of anything she did for Johnson or his staff.

Former chief of staff Andrew Mutavdzija, also interviewed during the investigation, said Johnson hired Thornton to attend community meetings on his behalf. Mutavdzija was aware of two staff meetings Thornton attended but did not remember any work product she generated.

Egan maintained a staff calendar but said she “never entered any community or school meetings or other events for Thornton to attend on behalf of Johnson,” according to the affidavit.

The evidence list filed Wednesday also indicated the government plans to have one or more experts testify at trial regarding a forensic examination of Thornton’s cellphone.

Johnson has served in the Legislature since 2007. He won election to the upper chamber in 2010 and cruised to re-election in 2014.