Former Prince George’s County Executive Pleads Guilty to Extortion, Tampering

… Johnson indicted in February on corruption charges …

By Ruben Castaneda and Miranda S. Spivack, The Washington Post

7:47 PM EDT, May 17, 2011

Former Prince George’s county executive Jack B. Johnson admitted in federal court on Tuesday that he took more than $400,000 in bribes, agreeing to a plea deal that showed that he began shaking down developers almost from his first days in office.

Johnson’s plea in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt came on a day when federal prosecutors announced that the county’s former housing director and two developers had already pleaded guilty in secret proceedings in the sweeping corruption investigation, which remains active. Those cases show that the probe was in high gear as early as 2006, the same year that Johnson sailed to a second term.

Johnson, 62, who had claimed his innocence and defiantly vowed to fight the charges as recently as March, pleaded guilty to extortion and witness and evidence tampering. There is no agreement on a specific punishment, but prosecutors said they will seek prison time at a Sept. 15 sentencing. Guidelines recommend a term of between 11 and 13 years.

Johnson, who was the county’s top prosecutor before he served as county executive from 2002 through 2010, said after the hearing that his attorney told him not to discuss details of the case, but said he would “do so in the future.”

“This has been a very trying time for my family and I,” Johnson said. “I want to say to all citizens of the county, I’m very sorry for what happened. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the Lord.”

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said Johnson’s conviction marked “a milestone in the investigation” but that federal agents and prosecutors are still at work. “The investigation is over when the crimes are over,” Rosenstein said. “We’ll follow the leads where they take us.”

The corruption case burst into the international spotlight in November when Johnson and his wife, Leslie, 59, a member of the County Council, were arrested at their brick colonial in Mitchellville. The couple was overheard on an FBI wiretap plotting to hide $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson’s bra and underwear and flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet as federal agents knocked at the door, federal authorities said.

Both Johnsons were charged with evidence tampering, and Jack Johnson was later indicted on bribery and corruption charges.

On Tuesday in court, Johnson, who wore a dark suit and striped tie, hugged and greeted friends who came to support him. The former prosecutor told District Judge Peter J. Messitte he was entering a guilty plea.

But as Assistant U.S. Attorney James Crowell prepared to describe Johnson’s wrongdoings, it appeared the deal might fall apart.

Messitte asked Johnson if the admissions contained in the plea agreement were true.

“Generally, yes sir,” Johnson said, prompting prosecutors to say the deal was off if Johnson did not fully admit guilt.

“I’m not trying to force this on you,” Messitte said. “You’re a former prosecutor, so you know.”

“I accept the document,” Johnson replied. Later in the hearing, Johnson said he wanted to talk about facts that could “explain” some of his actions. His attorney, Billy Martin, said that explanation would come at sentencing.

Leslie Johnson was not at her husband’s side. Instead, she attended a council meeting where she voted on a union contract issue. Just before the meeting wrapped up, she left through a back door without acknowledging her husband’s guilt or the pending allegations that she helped him try to cover up his crimes.

But other county leaders said the case has bolstered the reputation of Prince George’s as a place that long has fostered cronyism and a pay-to-play culture.

“Clearly this is a very sad day for Prince George’s County. This is one of the toughest times that I have ever seen,” said Prince George’s council member Will Campos, who formerly worked for Johnson. “It is a black eye. We are talking about leadership.”

Johnson admitted that beginning in 2003, he and other public officials accepted cash, airline tickets, rounds of golf, campaign contributions and even mortgage payments in exchange for influence on legislation, grant awards and even a restaurant health inspection.

Johnson steered millions in federal grant funding to a developer and arranged for jobs for friends who rewarded him with bribes.

As the end of his term in office approached, Johnson talked about his wife’s election to the County Council, telling one of the developers who bribed him that her position would be “real powerful.”

“You’ve got a good County Council,” Johnson said, according to the plea agreement. “And they’ll look out for you. I’ll have Leslie to, ah, take care of things.”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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