Leslie Johnson gets one-year sentence

December 9, 2011

Leslie Johnson on Friday made a tearful last-ditch plea for her freedom, telling a court that she had no part in the years-long bribery scheme orchestrated by her husband, former Prince George’s county executive Jack B. Johnson, and that her only mistake was trying to protect him on a single day.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte was not swayed and sentenced the former Prince George’s County Council member to one year and one day in prison. She also was ordered to serve two years’ supervised release, to perform 240 hours community service and to pay a $15,000 fine.

Leslie Johnson, 60, made international news last year when she flushed a $100,000 check down the toilet and hid $79,600 in cash in her bra and underwear as federal agents pounded on the door of the couple’s Mitchellville home.

In court Friday, Johnson (D), apologized for her actions and described herself as a “woman of integrity, a woman of service, a woman who genuinely cares for the lives of others.” She said she was in the dark about bribes that prosecutors said netted her husband as much as $1 million over the course of years.

“I refused to allow my aberrant behavior to define me,” she said. “The truth is that I was a full-time working mother of three children while Jack was in office. I could not and did not focus on Jack’s activities because I was focused on my family’s needs.”

Messitte, who on Tuesday sentenced Jack Johnson (D) to more than seven years in prison, said her account “does not compute.”

“Clearly, she knew. I cannot accept the defendant’s explanation today that she did not,” he said. “She knew she was dealing with tainted money.”

The Johnsons’ sentences, after a six-year federal corruption investigation, mark the fall of an ambitious power couple who were known as public faces of African American success in Prince George’s. Prosecutors said the investigation is continuing, leaving open the possibility that others in county politics and business could be implicated.

Prosecutor David Copperthite said Leslie Johnson was aware of her husband’s activities and understood what she was doing when she destroyed evidence. “She wasn’t just obstructing the crimes of her husband,” Copperthite said. “She was obstructing her own crimes.”

Messitte agreed with prosecutors. “Mrs. Johnson,” the judge said as he explained the sentence, “you are not an innocent spouse, you were a complicit spouse.”

Leslie Johnson is to report to prison March 9 and will be eligible for release after 10 months, Messitte said. She had asked to remain free on probation, saying she needs to care for her 91-year-old mother, an ill sister and a son in his 20s, who is in graduate school and lives at home.

Copperthite described Johnson as “very cool, very calculated,” when she was overheard consulting with her husband as he advised her to tear up a $100,000 check from Laurel physician Mirza Baig, who has been convicted in connection with the probe, and help locate cash hidden in the house. She then tried to leave undetected by federal agents and with nearly $80,000 in cash stuffed in her underwear.

“You’d think the words, ‘What’s going on? What’s this all about?’ ” would have entered into the conversation. It doesn’t,” Copperthite said.

“She was the one who was actually in control of obstructing the investigation and physically destroying the evidence,” he said.

Johnson faced up to 18 months in prison, according to federal guidelines. In June, shortly after her husband entered his guilty plea, she pleaded guilty to charges of evidence tampering.

Johnson, like her husband, is a lawyer. She was an administrative law judge in the District. In 2010, she made a successful run for the County Council and served for eight months following her arrest.

At the time of her guilty plea, Leslie Johnson briefly addressed reporters. “I made a mistake,” she said then.

During Jack Johnson’s sentencing Tuesday, prosecutor James Crowell referred to Leslie Johnson as her husband’s “most trusted co-conspirator” and said the couple was “bargain[ing] her prospective position on the County Council” with developers and others.

In one conversation recorded by federal agents, Jack Johnson can be heard discussing who Leslie Johnson would back for council chairman and how she would obtain a key committee post that would enable the Johnsons to continue doing favors for developers.

Before her arrest, Leslie Johnson pledged to vote for council member Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) to be chairman and had been promised the chairmanship of the committee that oversees planning and zoning.

Turner recently completed her one-year term as chairman.

In court papers, prosecutors have described several deals between Jack Johnson and others, including an unnamed, high-ranking official at Prince George’s Hospital Center and officials at a financial services company.

Hospital chief Ken Glover told The Post that he is the official described in at least one of the conversations with Johnson but that no deals “matured.” Glover, a former PNC Bank executive, has been placed on paid leave from the hospital. Hospital board chairman C. Philip Nichols Jr. is arranging for an outside investigator to examine the role of Glover and others at the hospital who were heard on federal wiretaps.

Officials in the administration of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) identified the company as Xavier Capital Management of Largo and on Friday ended the county’s contract for managing $44 million.

Shirley Gravely Currie, a sorority sister of Leslie Johnson’s, was among several dozen supporters at the courthouse Friday. Jack Johnson did not attend.

“I think she was caught up in the moment,” said Currie, who recently spent several weeks in court sitting by her husband, Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s), as he was tried in a bribery case. He was found not guilty.

Currie said that she is grateful Johnson did not receive a longer sentence and thinks that Johnson was unaware of her husband’s actions.

“She certainly would not have gone along with it,” Currie said.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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