“I’m sorry,” Johnson, 62, said. “I ask the people of Prince George’s County to forgive me.”
As a hushed standing-room-only crowd of mostly former county employees, preachers, and Johnson’s longtime friends and supporters looked on, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte spared him the maximum 14 years in prison and imposed an 87-month sentence. Messitte also fined Johnson $100,000 and ordered him to undergo alcohol treatment and forfeit $78,000 and his antique Mercedes. He must begin his prison term Feb. 3.
“This was not a single act of bribery,” Messitte said. “This was not a single misstep. . . . This was a deliberate march down a long path of kleptocracy.”
Johnson’s sentence is among the longest historically for a Maryland politician in a corruption case. He asked that he serve his time in North Carolina at Butner, a federal prison in the Research Triangle area near Raleigh. Bernard Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history, is housed at Butner, a sprawling medium- and low-security facility with a medical center.
Prosecutors and the judge indicated that Johnson has cooperated with federal authorities in their investigation of corruption in Prince George’s, resulting in the reduced sentence.
Johnson, who walked into court with the aid of a cane, tried unsuccessfully last month to get his sentencing date postponed a second time, arguing that he suffers from depression and Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. His sentencing originally was scheduled for September.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Johnson and his attorneys asked the judge for compassion, arguing that doctors say he may have a rare form of Parkinson’s and that he appears to be “going downhill relatively quickly.”
“To sentence Mr. Johnson to many years in [prison] is a death sentence for him,” defense attorney Jeffrey Harding said. “He would go off to a federal penitentiary and die.”
But prosecutors said that in July, a week after Johnson’s diagnosis of tremors, the FBI showed photographs of him playing 18 holes of golf, carrying a golf bag and shaking hands.
“Clearly, he was capable of carrying his own bag,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell said.
Messitte said that officials from the Bureau of Prisons have reviewed Johnson’s health records and found that they are equipped to handle his medical problems.
Johnson, who was county executive from 2002 to December 2010, was charged 13 months ago with evidence tampering and destruction of evidence after federal agents arrested him and his wife, Leslie, 60, at their Mitchellville home. They were overheard on a wiretap plotting to stash $79,600 in cash in her underwear and flush a $100,000 check that he got as a bribe down the toilet. He also was videotaped taking cash bribes.