Sen. Johnson reaches plea deal in corruption case

Robert Snell and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson is expected to plead guilty to an unspecified charge in a federal case alleging he misused taxpayer dollars by hiring a “ghost employee” to work in his legislative office.

Terms of the pending deal were not immediately available, but Johnson is scheduled to appear at a Friday plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman in Detroit, according to a court notice. His attorney declined comment. A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office also declined comment.

Johnson was absent from the Michigan Senate on Thursday as the upper chamber voted on a midyear road spending bill.

The Highland Park Democrat rejected an initial plea deal on Tuesday during a pretrial conference. That deal would have involved Johnson pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit theft from a federally funded program, a charge punishable by up to five years in federal prison.

In return, prosecutors would have dropped a second theft charge, a 10-year felony. Instead, Johnson, 44, is scheduled to stand trial March 12 in federal court. Sentencing guidelines in the deal called for a six-month to 12-month prison sentence.

The plea deal likely has not changed significantly, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

“This is when reality sets in for a defendant,” Henning said. “You get a realistic assessment that there is such a great risk of conviction.”

Johnson would be the highest-ranking elected official in Michigan convicted of a corruption-related crime since ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison in the City Hall corruption scandal in 2013.

Johnson’s expected guilty plea, however, comes amid several other public corruption investigations, including one that started in Macomb County and has since spread to Detroit.

In December, The Detroit News first reported that several Metro Detroit public officials and politicians have drawn scrutiny from federal agents during the Macomb corruption probe. That list of politicians includes Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland and former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, would expect Johnson to resign if he were convicted of a crime and faced prison time, said spokeswoman Amber McCann. As of Thursday afternoon, Johnson had not contacted Meekhof’s office.

The Michigan Constitution holds that anyone convicted of a felony involving “dishonesty, deceit fraud or a breach of the public trust” is prohibited from serving in state or local elected office or holding a public policy-making job for 20 years. Voters agreed to toughen the constitutional language in the wake of Kilpatrick’s case.

“That’s something we’ll have to look at more closely,” McCann said. But if any member were convicted of a crime and faced jail or prison time, Meehof would expect them to resign because “they can no longer perform their job,” she said.

Rosie Jones, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats, declined to comment ahead of Friday’s plea hearing.

With his case headed to trial in less than two weeks, prosecutors have been seeking to prove that a debt-ridden Johnson stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015.

Johnson faced several pressing debts in fall 2013, including his son’s private-school tuition at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, his own tuition at the University of Detroit-Mercy and his own debt to a political consulting firm, prosecutors said.

He is accused of putting a ghost employee on his Senate payroll so he could repay loans. The ghost employee is Glynis Thornton, who was ensnared in an earlier corruption scandal involving the state-run Education Achievement Authority in Detroit.

She is cooperating with authorities and secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson at his home in November 2015.