Prison term for James E. Johnson in Prince George’s corruption case

April 16, 2012

James E. Johnson, a former Prince George’s County housing chief who solicited and accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from developers in a far-reaching corruption scheme, was sentenced Monday to 37 months in prison and two years of probation.

Johnson, 67, of Temple Hills was a close associate of former county executive Jack B. Johnson(D), and played a pivotal role in the bribery and corruption conspiracy that prosecutors say pervaded the eight-year administration of Jack Johnson. James Johnson, who is not related to Jack Johnson, helped steer tens of thousands of dollars in deals to developers using government funds, and together, the two men pocketed as much as $1  million in cash in exchange, prosecutors said.

“He was a full participant in the conspiracy with Jack Johnson,” said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, whose office is prosecuting cases stemming from a multi-year FBI investigation in Prince George’s.

The conspirators had planned to use Jack Johnson’s wife, Leslie, then a newly elected County Council member, to continue their exploits after Jack Johnson left office in 2010. Before the couple’s arrest on Nov. 12, 2010, Leslie Johnson (D) had been poised to head a council committee that approves development deals. Jack Johnson and Leslie Johnson are in prison, having pleaded guilty last year to charges stemming from the conspiracy.

James Johnson’s role dates to at least 2006, according to prosecutors. A former elementary school teacher who later ran a religious bookstore in Temple Hills, James Johnson had served as a special assistant to Jack Johnson, a fellow graduate of Benedict College in South Carolina.

In 2009, Jack Johnson, with the approval of the County Council, appointed James Johnson as housing director, responsible for the agency and its $80 million budget. James Johnson said in court Monday that he did not want the housing job, thinking himself to be unqualified.

In the housing post, James Johnson was well positioned to help continue the shakedown of developers and other businesses, according to prosecutors. He had ready access to the federal HOME program, which during Jack Johnson’s administration doled out $12.4 million in funds to developers. The program is supposed to spur construction of low- and moderate-income housing.

It was all a “terrible mistake,” James Johnson told U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte on Monday in a nearly empty courtroom at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt.

Messitte, who sentenced Jack Johnson to a seven-year prison term, and Leslie Johnson to a one-year term, condemned James Johnson’s actions.

“You breached the public trust in a significant way,” Messitte said as he handed down the 37-month sentence prosecutors had sought. James Johnson was also fined $25,000 and ordered to forfeit $46,300 in cash that federal agents recovered in a safe-deposit box.

James Johnson faced a sentence of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000. He is due to report to prison on June 1. After the sentencing, he declined to comment.

Although some documents related to James Johnson remain under seal in federal court, The Washington Post reported in 2007 that a $350,000 annual grant fund administered by a county panel sent $14,000 to groups with ties to Jerusalem AME Church in Clinton, where the pastor was Diane H. Johnson, James Johnson’s wife. James Johnson was an adviser to the panel. Other groups with ties to members of Jack Johnson’s administration received tens of thousands of dollars from the fund, documents show.

James Johnson is the latest to be sentenced in the corruption scheme led by Jack Johnson, who served as the county’s chief prosecutor before he was elected county executive. Jack Johnsonwas imprisoned after admitting that he accepted cash, airline tickets, rounds of golf and other items in exchange for influencing legislation, waiving regulations and making grants.

His wife went to prison after being overheard on a wiretap plotting with her husband on Nov. 12, 2010, to tear up a $100,000 check from developer Mirza Baig, a Laurel physician, and flushing it down a toilet. She was arrested with $79,600 in cash stuffed in her underwear. Baig, who began cooperating with authorities in 2010, is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Patrick Ricker, a developer accused of participating in the scheme, eventually worked with government agents to supply James Johnson with $30,000 in cash bribes, court documents said. He is to be sentenced in June.

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins and researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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