Just hours after a Maryland state senator was charged with bribery in September, Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson got a call from his top housing official and longtime friend.
“You heard that they indicted Uly Currie tonight right?” Johnson asked.
“Yeah,” came the reply. “Sixteen counts.”
“Yup. Damn,” Johnson said. “They really, that’s why I was saying man, you know, we, we in these jobs, we gotta take, be careful man. You know what I’m saying. Be careful boy. Be careful.”
What Johnson didn’t know was that FBI agents were listening in on that call. And they had been taping his calls for months.
Federal officials allege that Johnson, 61, was shaking down developers and business owners during nearly all the eight years he spent at the helm of one of the nation’s most affluent majority-black suburban counties. He traded business permits, millions in grant funding and other favors for airline tickets, rounds of golf and about $200,000 in cash, according to an indictment filed Feb. 14 in federal court.
The 31-page indictment and other court papers released so far in the investigation reveal a Johnson very different from the public image he worked to craft during 16 years in public office as county executive and, before that, the county’s top prosecutor.
The papers quote Johnson extensively from wiretaps and show a county executive keenly aware of what he is doing. At one point in July, for example, the indictment said Johnson was talking to his housing director and friend about how taking bribes can be lucrative. “Two years, you got a couple hundred thousand dollars, you know, cash, then you can go and ah, and you, you get your little retirement, you know, you buy yourself a nice, you get a, you, you just want something nice in South Carolina, you know what I mean,” Johnson said in the wiretap.
Again and again in the indictment, prosecutors use Johnson’s own words against him, offering a picture of a man who sought to leverage his power for cash. Johnson’s conversations with his housing chief, a developer, other officials and candidates show a county executive with far-reaching influence.
In one instance, Johnson, in a rambling style of speech familiar to those who know him, pressed a liquor store owner to raise campaign donations for his wife, Leslie Johnson, then a County Council candidate, according to court papers. Johnson added: “You gonna need some help on the council, all right?”
Another time, Johnson, who earned a $174,540 salary as county executive, talked about shaking down a developer for $500,000.
And when FBI agents were closing in on him in November, he instructed his wife to destroy a check from a developer, urging her first to “tear it up” and then to “chew it up.” Finally, he told her to flush it down the toilet. But he told her to keep the cash in the house and hide it in her underwear and bra.
That Johnson is not like the Johnson who promised to put the people first.
Even as rumors of government corruption swirled and FBI agents in 2008 raided some county offices, Johnson portrayed himself as a man of the people. He took credit for courting new businesses and targeting police brutality and slum lords who “put profits ahead of people.”
Johnson and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this article. In a written statement issued after the indictment, Johnson asked for privacy. “The time to talk is in court,” he said. No court date has been scheduled.
His attorney, Billy Martin, previously said that the indictment “seriously mischaracterizes” Johnson’s time in office and that his client will “continue to fight the government’s allegations.”
Just before 11 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2002, Jack Johnson took the stage at the Greenbelt Marriott to celebrate the overwhelming vote that made him county executive.
“The next four years,” he told a cheering crowd, “will show education up, crime down, developers accountable. . . . Ultimately we will be judged by how we treat each other.”
Sometime the following year, court papers say, Johnson took a $3,000 cash bribe from one of the developers he promised would be held accountable.
Prosecutors said 2003 marked the start of what would become a nearly eight-year scheme by Johnson and other public officials to extort cash, trips and even mortgage payments from business people, court papers say.
In 2006, as Johnson neared the end of his first term in office, he accepted $10,000 more in cash from the same developer, according to the indictment.
The same year, FBI agents launched an investigation into what some speculated was a too-cozy relationship between Prince George’s County officials and some in the business and development community. It revealed, court papers say, that developers were “regularly providing things of value” to public officials in return for favors.
The trail led to Johnson.
The list of alleged conspirators includes an unidentified candidate for county office, two unnamed developers and a Langley Park liquor store owner.
Johnson’s wife, council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), also is named as a co-conspirator. She is not charged with bribery but faces charges of witness and evidence tampering.
Prosecutors also said in court papers that former housing director James Johnson, who is no relation to Jack Johnson, played a key role in helping secure funding for developers and accepted $46,000 in bribes himself. James Johnson, a longtime friend of Jack Johnson, was identified only by position in the indictment, not by name.
James Johnson has not been charged. He could not be reached for comment.
At least one of the alleged conspirators appears to have been cooperating with prosecutors. When a developer, known in court papers as “Developer A,” handed Jack Johnson $15,000 in November, the FBI videotaped the meeting.
U.S. Attorney Rod. J. Rosenstein said he could not comment on whether any unnamed conspirators are in public office today. He said more indictments are expected in the coming weeks or months.
In January 2010, a federal judge approved a tap on Jack Johnson’s cellphone. For the last year of his term, the FBI was listening in.
That February, Johnson pushed for the County Council to consider a resolution that would put Developer A’s project in line for federal grant money to support affordable housing.
Later that month, Developer A gave Johnson a $50,000 cashier’s check, court papers say.
Johnson was nearing the end of his time in office, and term limit rules prevented him from running again.
But that didn’t mean the Johnson family necessarily would lose its political influence. Leslie Johnson, a former administrative law judge, was making a bid for the County Council, and Jack Johnson was busy supporting his wife’s campaign.
On March 20, the indictment says, Jack Johnson placed a call to Amrik Melhi, co-owner of several liquor stores in the county.
“I need you now, I, I need you to, ah, raise, ah, six thousand dollars for my wife,” Jack Johnson said, according to the indictment. “I don’t want to have a fundraiser. I just want you to go out and just pick up a few checks and um . . . and then, ah, you know, she, you gonna need some help on the council, alright?”
Melhi, the indictment says, agreed to raise the money.
Over the course of the year, Jack Johnson got a job for one of Developer A’s associates, promised to pressure housing officials to dole out $1.7 million in the federal grant money and tried to get the county to lease space in one of Developer A’s buildings.
But despite all the money Developer A had given Johnson, the developer was still “just bugging the [expletive] out of me, man,” Johnson told a friend.
“Why don’t me and you go to his house together . . . so [Developer A] can’t wiggle out of [expletive],” Johnson said, according to the indictment.
On Sept. 1, state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) was indicted on charges that he took $245,000 in bribes in exchange for using his powerful post in the Maryland legislature to help a grocery chain. His trial is scheduled for June.
A few days later, according to the indictment, Jack Johnson placed a call.
“When Uly Currie got indicted,” he said, “I decided, man I said you know what, well I’m decided, but I said look, Man, I’m not doing [expletive] between now and um, the rest of the term.”
On Nov. 12, just weeks before his term ended, Jack Johnson drove to Developer A’s office and picked up $15,000 in cash, the indictment states.
Staff reporter Ruben Castaneda, and staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Julie Tate contributed to this report.