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Sen. Bert Johnson pleads guilty, resigns

Robert Snell

Detroit — State Sen. Bert Johnson resigned in disgrace Friday after pleading guilty to a federal theft crime and admitting he conspired to steal more than $23,000 from taxpayers.

Johnson could spend up to a year in federal prison after being accused of putting a “ghost employee” on his Senate payroll.

The plea marked another betrayal of taxpayers by an elected official in Metro Detroit and scuttled the redemption story of a Highland Park Democrat who overcame a teenage conviction for armed robbery and rose to statewide public office.

His tenure as a state senator, however, was dogged by the worst attendance record in the state Legislature and a scandal involving allegations he hired a ghost employee who was paid to do no work.

Johnson, 44, is the highest-ranking public official in Michigan convicted of a corruption crime since ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison in the City Hall scandal in 2013.

Johnson, wearing a blue suit and a glum expression, declined comment after entering his plea. He will be sentenced Aug. 7.

After pleading guilty, Johnson submitted a one-sentence resignation letter, which read: “It is with profound regret that I tender my resignation, effective March 2, 2018.”

“Public officials, especially those elected by the people, cannot treat the people’s money as their own,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement. “The defendant in this case treated taxpayer money as his own, to repay his personal debt. Such an egregious abuse of power will not be tolerated.”

State law bars anyone from serving in a state or local office for 20 years after being convicted of a felony involving “dishonesty, deceit fraud or a breach of the public trust.” Voters agreed to toughen the state constitutional language in the wake of Kilpatrick’s case.

The guilty plea in front of U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman spares Johnson from standing trial March 12 in federal court. Johnson admitted conspiring to steal money from a federally funded program, a five-year felony.

In exchange, prosecutors will drop a second 10-year theft charge.

Johnson also agreed to pay $23,133.89 restitution to the state.

Sentencing guidelines call for six-to-12 months in federal prison but Leitman has wide discretion in sentencing Johnson.

“Sen. Johnson made a conscious decision to violate the trust and confidence of the constituents that he was elected to represent,” said Manny Muriel, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation division.

Johnson had a change of heart after admitting Tuesday he had rejected a similar plea deal.

Johnson is the latest public official to face prison for a corruption-related crime. His plea comes amid several other ongoing public corruption investigations, including one that started in Macomb County and 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.

Johnson stole more than $23,000 from taxpayers between March 2014 and January 2015, according to prosecutors.

He was accused of putting the ghost employee on his payroll so he could repay loans.

The ghost employee was 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.

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

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Jonathan Oosting contributed.