Johnson: I’ll be ‘vindicated’ in ghost employee trial

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson expects to be “not only victorious, but … vindicated” when he goes to trial on federal conspiracy theft charges for allegedly hiring a “ghost employee” to repay her for personal loans.

The Highland Park Democrat spoke out this week in a rare media interview, expressing confidence he’ll beat the public corruption charges with the help of a new taxpayer-funded attorney appointed after he claimed financial indigence.

“I got a great lawyer that I’ve been able to draw for myself, I’ve got a great judge, I’ve got great facts, so I expect some really good things to happen here in the fall,” Johnson told radio host and political consultant Steve Hood on the 910 AM Superstation in Southfield.

He declined a subsequent interview request from The Detroit News.

Johnson is facing conspiracy and theft charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. An April indictment alleges he conspired to steal more than $23,000 from taxpayers by hiring an employee in his Senate office who did not actually perform any work.

He is accused of hiring Glynis Thornton to pay back a personal loan she had given him. A partial transcript of a secret recording she made indicates Johnson told her it would be a “huge problem” for both of them if she came clean about their arrangement to investigators in a separate corruption probe.

But Johnson said Monday it’s “just not true” that Thornton was a ghost employee and suggested there is “work product” to prove that she did work for his office.

“There’s no question about it. It can be corroborated, and we will present evidence as to such,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman this month approved Johnson’s request for a taxpayer-funded attorney after he dumped his former lawyer and claimed indigence. Johnson is paid $71,685 a year as a state senator but has a history of financial struggles and related legal fights.

Ann Arbor attorney John A. Shea accepted a court appointment last week to represent Johnson. They are expected to appear before Leitman for a status conference on Aug. 1. Johnson was scheduled to go to trial Aug. 22, but the appointment of a new lawyer could delay the case.

In his radio interview, Johnson argued that “being determined indigent is not a negative status thing,” suggesting people who earn even larger salaries than he does have trouble fighting federal charges because you’re “hiring experts or people who can corroborate or disprove things, so it costs a lot to fight these cases.”

Johnson is free on bond and remains in office. Senate leaders have not moved to expel or heavily sanction Johnson, but they have implemented new oversight of all hiring and firing decisions in his office.

“This stands to sully the reputation I’ve built unless, or until, I bring myself forward in this system,” Johnson said. “So that’s exactly what we intend to do. I don’t intend to be back here crying for sympathy at a sentencing. We expect to be victorious at trial.”

Johnson borrowed at least $14,000 from Thornton and later hired her as a community liaison, according to court records. The government alleges her hiring was merely a way for Johnson to pay off the debt.

Thornton pleaded guilty in a separate public corruption case involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit. She was cooperating with authorities and is expected to testify against Johnson.