Prosecutors seek tough sentence for Jack Johnson in corruption case

November 21, 2011

Former Prince George’s county executive Jack B. Johnson, who accepted as much as $1 million in bribes, should receive a substantial prison sentence, and his wife should serve as much as 18 months for her role in the far-reaching corruption scheme, federal officials said.

In a 76-page federal sentencing memorandum obtained Monday by The Washington Post, prosecutors for the U.S. attorney’s office in Greenbelt said that Johnson, in exchange for favors, was setting up consulting jobs for himself at a hospital and a fund-management company after he left office. Johnson, who pleaded guilty to extortion and witness and evidence-tampering charges in May, faces as much as 14 years in prison.

The sentencing memo describes how Johnson steered millions of dollars in government money to his developer friends and “shamelessly flouted the public trust and abused his lawful authority.”

“As one of the most egregious and notorious instances of corruption and obstruction of justice in Maryland history, the government submits that Jack Johnson’s criminal conduct calls for a very significant sentence that will promote respect for federal law and deter other public officials from engaging in corruption and obstructing justice,” the memo said.

His wife, Leslie (D), a former County Council member, had “abundant knowledge” of the extortion scheme and “chose to conspire with him,” according to a separate sentencing memo for her case.

Jack Johnson is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 6 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. His attorney, Billy Martin, did not return a message left for him Monday evening.

Leslie Johnson, who pleaded guilty in June to one felony count of conspiracy to commit witness and evidence tampering, is set for sentencing Dec. 9. Her attorney, Shawn M. Wright, declined to comment Monday on the characterizations in the memo.

Defense attorneys will have an opportunity to argue against the prosecutors’ recommendations at the sentencing hearings.

Jack Johnson, a Democrat who was county executive from 2002 until December 2010, came to the attention of federal authorities in 2006, when the FBI began investigating allegations of corruption, campaign finance violations and tax fraud. Authorities found massive corruption centered around a “pay-to-play culture” that began months after Johnson took office.

“Under Jack Johnson’s leadership, government in Prince George’s County literally was for sale,” the memo said.

The “pay-to-play” scheme involved several developers, including Laurel physician and developer Mirza H. Baig, with whom Johnson once owned property and had been making deals for two decades. Several county officials also participated in the scheme, including then-Department of Housing and Community Development Director James Johnson, and then-Deputy Fire Chief Karl Granzow, whose house and office were raided in 2008. They all pleaded guilty to various charges. In his plea agreement, Jack Johnson acknowledged accepting up to $400,000 from the scheme.

Johnson, 62, was charged last November with evidence tampering and destruction of evidence after federal agents arrested him and his wife, 59, at their Mitchellville home. They were overheard on a wiretap scheming to stash $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson’s underwear and flush a $100,000 check that Jack Johnson received as a bribe from a developer. And it was her idea — not his, prosecutors say — to flush the check down a toilet as FBI agents banged on the couple’s front door.

The memo recounts an array of conversations in which Johnson seeks donations on behalf of his wife, who was elected to the County Council a little more than a week before their arrests. During the same period as those discussions, prosecutors write, Leslie Johnson was caught on taped telephone calls telling her husband about cash contributions that exceeded legal state limits and asking him, “How should I do this?”

She also said during that call, prosecutors say, that she had put an “additional” $3,500 in a bedroom drawer at their home, conversations that “sharply contradict” her public explanations after her arrest that her actions had been a singular lapse.

On the day of their arrests, Johnson was at Baig’s office picking up a cash bribe and talking about how he would continue the corruption “through his wife’s new position on the county council,” the memorandum said. She was elected Nov. 2, 2010. The FBI videotaped the meeting.

“He proudly bragged about how he was going to orchestrate approval of various funding and approvals by the County Council for Baig’s projects,” according to the memo.

Federal officials valued the benefits that Baig received in exchange for illegal payments to Johnson at more than $10 million on two development projects.

“The defendant’s crimes have injured the county and Maryland, and a meaningful term of imprisonment is needed to demonstrate that public officials in Maryland are held accountable for their misdeeds,” the memo said.

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