Convicted county executive readies for his prison term

February 17, 2012

After years in a successful career, first as a prosecutor and then as the leader of the nation’s most affluent, majority-black county, Jack Johnson’s life is about to come down to this:

Early morning wake-up.

Breakfast in the mess hall with fellow convicted felons, many of them former drug dealers.

Working until the afternoon at a job in the kitchen, the laundry or the grounds that could pay as little as 40 cents an hour. A promotion would mean transfer to a clerical job.

Johnson’s evenings will be free for reading, watching television, writing letters, walking on the track or working out in the gym. He will not be allowed to have much, if any, contact with his wife, Leslie, who also is about to head off to federal prison.

Johnson, 62, who pleaded guilty last year in a wide-ranging federal corruption probe, is scheduled to be admitted to the federal prison complex in Butner, N.C., no later than Saturday, according to Jeffrey Harding, one of Johnson’s attorneys. Harding would not say exactly when his client expected to report to begin his sentence.

The good news for the former Prince George’s County executive? The prison is reputed to be exceedingly well-run.

“It is one of the better camps in the system,” said Herb Hoelter, a Baltimore attorney who advises people who are about to head to prison. “It has always been one of the crown jewels of the system.”

Said Alan Ellis, a San Francisco attorney with many clients in the system: “The bottom line is he hit the inmate lottery.”

Everything’s relative when you are talking about life behind bars.

Butner, which is located in Research Triangle, near Raleigh and Durham, has an extensive medical complex should Johnson’s health require it. Harding has described Johnson as in failing health, undergoing testing for a rare form of Parkinsons.

Johnson is expected to serve his sentence in Butner’s low-security prison camp or, if necessary, the prison hospital. He will have substantial freedom of movement in the camp, the least confining of Butner’s four facilities.

He likely will be housed in a dorm-like setting, probably with a roommate, and will have use of a shower and bathroom down the hall, according to people with knowledge of the camp. There are no bars on the doors or windows, but almost no one walks away. If they do, they are sent to one of the more traditional prisons on the campus.

“Everyone has the same goal: to get out as soon as possible and not make trouble,” said Hoelter.

Johnson will be able to use his prison earnings to buy food and other items in the prison commissary. He will have access to an approved e-mail list of correspondents but not to the Internet, Hoelter said.

Johnson, a graduate of Benedict College and Howard University Law School, will not easily find people of his educational level or professional status there. “He is not going to walk in expecting to find a majority of white-collar offenders,” said Ellis.

Butner has some notable inmates serving life terms: Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff; convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and mob boss Carmine Persico. But Johnson is unlikely to cross paths with them. With no prior record and a seven-year sentence, he is almost assured of a spot in the prison camp, said Ellis.

During two terms as county executive, Johnson (D) was a popular figure who prided himself on transforming Prince George’s into “Gorgeous Prince George’s,” and helped improve the county’s standing on Wall Street, while also expanding emergency services and attracting businesses. But questions began to arise early in his tenure about possible misdeeds.

It turned out that he was doing illicit deals almost from the day he took office in 2002, according to federal prosecutors.

The convictions of Jack and Leslie Johnson marked a sad moment in Prince George’s, a typical post-war Washington suburb that became a mecca for highly educated African Americans. The Johnsons were at one time held out as the epitome of this success, featured on the cover of a 1992 New York Times Magazine story about upwardly mobile blacks.

Jack Johnson, a lawyer who sometimes had trouble with garbled syntax, was seen by supporters as someone like many of them, arising from hardscrabble beginnings.

Leslie Johnson was for many years an administrative law judge in the District, and proudly spoke of herself as “the first lady” of Prince George’s before mounting a successful campaign in 2010 for the Prince George’s County Council.

The federal investigation came crashing down around them on Nov. 12, 2010, about three weeks before Jack Johnson was to leave office and Leslie Johnson was to be sworn in.

Jack Johnson admitted that beginning in 2003, he and other public officials accepted cash, airline tickets, rounds of golf and other items of value in exchange for influencing legislation, grant awards and a restaurant health inspection.

Leslie Johnson pleaded guilty to destroying evidence and later resigned her council seat. She had been overheard on a wiretap plotting with her husband to stuff $79,600 in her underwear and flush a $100,000 check from a developer.

By March 9, federal officials said she is expected to report for her 12-month sentence to Alderson, the West Virginia prison that housed Martha Stewart. Among its nicknames: Camp Cupcake.

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