Johnson facing new Senate oversight amid criminal case

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Democratic leaders will need to review and approve any office spending or staff decisions by state Sen. Bert Johnson as the Highland Park Democrat faces federal charges for allegedly hiring a “ghost employee” to repay personal loans she gave him.

Johnson has not been stripped of committee assignments or been the subject of any expulsion talks since a federal grand jury indicted him on conspiracy theft charges on April 13. But Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Minority Leader Jim Ananich have reached a new agreement for additional oversight.

“In light of the allegations concerning state taxpayer dollars, I felt it was appropriate to have outside review of any expenditures and staffing decisions for that office,” Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement to The Detroit News.

The arrangement has been “official for a little while now,” said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Meekhof, R-West Olive.

McCann said Meekhof is “absolutely” concerned about new allegations made public Thursday when a March 24 search warrant application and supporting affidavit were unsealed in federal court, including the accusation that Johnson claimed to have pulled off a similar scheme in the past.

“As this process goes forward, it seems there’s more and more information that is surprising and disappointing,” McCann said.

In the sworn affidavit, FBI Agent Corey Burras of the Detroit public corruption squad detailed the alleged deal between Johnson and former staffer Glynis Thornton, who authorities say earned $23,134 in taxpayer money but did not perform any work for Johnson.

Thornton, cooperating with authorities after she was arrested in a separate corruption probe, said Johnson offered to hire her and give her a one-time payroll payment from the state to repay a $10,000 personal loan she had given him.

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

Thornton ended up earning regular checks instead of a one-time payment, according to bank records reviewed by the FBI, and she later loaned Johnson more money while she remained on the payroll.

McCann said Senate Republicans had not yet reviewed the affidavit and do not have any immediate plans to probe whether Johnson had any similar arrangements with other staffers in the past, as he allegedly told Thornton.

“We do have an ongoing federal investigation underway into Sen. Johnson’s alleged activities,” she said. “At this point, the majority leader believes it would be prudent to allow the investigation to proceed and not for the Legislature to pre-empt it or begin any kind of investigation while that is ongoing.”

Johnson served in the state House for four years before winning election to the upper chamber in 2010. A spokesman for House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, noted Johnson served under then-Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township.

“The House has turned over all requested records from that time period to the FBI,” said Leonard spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

The affidavit unsealed Thursday included a partial transcript of a conversation with Johnson that Thornton secretly recorded at his home. She was no longer on his payroll at the time but was cooperating with authorities as part of a separate investigation into the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit.

Thornton asked Johnson if she could be honest about their work and loan arrangement as federal authorities reviewed her finances and asked about her employment with the state.

“That would be a huge problem,” Johnson told her. “That would be a huge problem.”

Dearborn attorney Cyril Hall, who is representing Johnson in the case, did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. He said last week his client is not guilty and has argued that Thornton is not a credible witness.

Thornton in early 2016 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit federal program bribery in the EAA case. She has not been sentenced.

A separate FBI affidavit unsealed Friday includes information suggesting Johnson and Thornton had known each other for some time.

Thornton said she regularly visited Johnson’s home because her hair stylist was his live-in girlfriend, Agent Burras said in the new affidavit. She occasionally saw his chief of staff and other Senate employees at the home, she said, and had been there for Johnson re-election campaign meetings.

Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch’s office initially moved to seal the search warrant requests “to avoid compromising an ongoing investigation.” They were made public this week because the government “is no longer apprehensive an ongoing investigation may be compromised.”