Johnson, former Prince George's county executive, charged with taking $200,000 in bribes

February 14, 2011

Former Prince George's County executive Jack B. Johnson accepted more than $200,000 in bribes and played a central role in a broad corruption conspiracy that involved other county officials, candidates for public office and at least three developers or business leaders, federal officials alleged in new charges filed Monday.

A 31-page indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt charges Johnson for the first time with soliciting and accepting bribes. It comes three months after Johnson and his wife, Leslie Johnson, were arrested at their home and accused of conspiring to hide $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson's bra and flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet.

Monday's indictment outlines in detail the scope of the government's corruption probe in Prince George's and alleges how much money Johnson got from developers and what he did in return.

The indictment alleges that the conspiracy lasted from 2003 until November, almost through Johnson's eight years in office. It describes a pay-to-play atmosphere in Prince George's during his tenure and quotes the former county executive in wiretaps talking about shaking down developers seeking federal housing money and demanding donations for his wife's campaign for a seat on the County Council.

Jack Johnson, 61, said Monday in a written statement that his attorney advised him not to comment and that "the time to talk is in court and not in the press."

"I would hope that the people of Prince George's County and elsewhere recognize the growth and progress that occurred during my administration," he wrote. His attorney, Billy Martin, said that the indictment "seriously mischaracterizes" Johnson's tenure and that his client will continue to fight the government's allegations.

Johnson is the only person charged in the indictment, but other public officials and businesspeople are described as co-conspirators. Two are listed by name: Leslie Johnson and liquor store owner Amrik Melhi, who was charged in November in a scheme to distribute black-market alcohol and cigarettes.

The indictment also alleges that Johnson conspired with two unnamed developers and an unnamed candidate for public office and that Johnson's housing director took thousands in bribes from developers. That official is not named, but James Johnson, who is not related to the county executive, held the position. James Johnson had not been charged. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Jack Johnson, the county's former top prosecutor, is accused of rewarding those who bribed him by steering millions of dollars in federal grant money, influencing the business-permitting process and using his authority to get people jobs.

He accepted money, trip expenses, airline tickets, rounds of golf, mortgage payments and in-kind campaign contributions in return for official favors, the indictment alleges.

Johnson's indictment is the latest blow to a county roiled by a federal probe of corruption that U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein on Monday called "long-standing and widespread." He said he expects additional charges.

"Pay-to-play government is not democratic government," Rosenstein said in a statement. "Government employees flagrantly abuse the public trust when they take money in return for official acts."

Johnson's successor, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who took office in December, has vowed to reform the $2.7 billion government. He has set up an ethics commission, pledged to stop giving credit cards to county employees and told his staff to accept nothing of value, including meals.

Baker's staff was trying to learn more about housing officials who might have been implicated and could still be on the county payroll, Prince George's officials said.

Baker's spokesman, Scott Peterson, said in a statement that the administration would cooperate with authorities but would not comment further.

Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), who is awaiting a preliminary hearing next month on charges of witness tampering and destruction of evidence, has maintained her seat but has been stripped of some responsibilities by the full council.

On Monday, she joined her colleagues to consider several development proposals but after the 15-minute session left though a side door. She did not respond to an e-mail request for comment or to a message left at her council office.

The investigation into possible corruption in Prince George's dates to 2006, when authorities learned that county real estate developers were "regularly providing things of value" to public officials in exchange for official favors, court papers say. FBI agents listened in on wiretaps, worked with informants and searched county offices, businesses and private homes. Authorities began tapping Jack Johnson's cellphone in January 2010.

Late last year, the corruption probe led to the arrests of seven people, including two Prince George's police officers, in the scheme to distribute black-market alcohol and cigarettes.

The bulk of the allegations against him center on funds doled out by the county as part of federal affordable-housing programs. At least two developers were awarded millions in funding after handing over money to Johnson or his housing director, the indictment says.

The indictment alleges that Jack Johnson took more than $200,000 from an unnamed developer in exchange for getting him federal money and other favors. The housing director took $46,000 from two developers, the indictment alleges.

James Johnson was appointed by Jack Johnson to head the housing department in 2009.

The indictment says that FBI agents recorded conversations among Jack Johnson, a developer and the housing director, which included shakedowns for cash.

In one conversation in October between Jack Johnson and his housing director, he suggested: "Why don't me and you go to his house together . . . so [Developer A] can't wiggle out of [expletive]. . . . We'll go ah . . . one night next week. Then we'll do ah, 1.5, and ah, you and I should get five hundred together," according to the indictment.

Later, Jack Johnson told his housing director that he would keep $300,000 and that the housing director could have the remaining $200,000 they would get from the developer, the indictment said. "No, that'll be good, man," Jack Johnson said, according to the indictment. "If I can get myself about three hundred, um, I'll be in good shape."

During a meeting in November that was secretly recorded by law enforcement, the developer gave Jack Johnson $15,000 in cash, court papers say. When confronted by FBI agents, Johnson told them the money was for a party to mark the end of his term as county executive, court papers say.

Jack Johnson is charged with eight counts, including bribery, witness and evidence tampering, and aiding and abetting. A court appearance had not been set.

glodm@washpost.com wigginsovetta@washpost.com

Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty, Hamil R. Harris, Miranda S. Spivack and Cheryl W. Thompson and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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