Step toward plea in Leslie Johnson case

March 25, 2011

Federal prosecutors in Maryland filed a criminal information on Friday, charging Prince George’s County Council member Leslie Johnson with conspiracy to commit witness and evidence tampering, a legal step that means a defendant is likely to enter a guilty plea.

Johnson (D-Mitchellville), 59, and her husband, former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D), 61, were arrested in November as part of a far-reaching investigation into whether public officials in the county accepted and solicited bribes.

The court papers filed Friday do not reveal new allegations against Leslie Johnson, who is accused of destroying evidence on Nov. 12, 2010, the day of her arrest.

Sources familiar with the case said Johnson has been negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors, but some specifics have to be finalized. There has not been a final decision on whether prosecutors would seek prison time, one of the sources said.

Even if a plea deal is finalized, it would not necessarily mean that Leslie Johnson is cooperating with federal investigators.

As federal agents knocked at the door of the Mitchellville home she shared with her husband, Leslie Johnson refused to immediately open it, prosecutors allege. She was overheard on a wiretap conspiring with her husband to flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet and hide $79,600 in her undergarments, court papers say.

Those actions damaged the “evidence’s integrity and availability for use in the course of an ongoing federal Grand Jury investigation . . . and any subsequent federal criminal proceedings,” prosecutors wrote in papers filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Leslie Johnson’s attorney, Shawn Wright, said on Friday that the new documents had been filed but declined further comment. The County Council office referred calls to Johnson’s lawyers.

The case against Leslie Johnson is part of a six-year corruption investigation that prosecutors say involves other county officials and business people. The probe revealed that developers and others had been “regularly providing things of value” to public officials in return for favors, prosecutors said.

Leslie Johnson, a former administrative law judge who has been active in community groups, was elected to the council Nov. 2 and sworn in in December. If she is convicted of a felony, Johnson would have to step down from her council seat.

Jacob S. Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor who is not connected with the case, said the filing of a criminal information typically indicates that a plea agreement is expected. He said it appears that the prosecution of Jack Johnson is the government’s primary focus.

“In the way the government has put together this case, it has been about their effort to charge, prosecute and, they hope, convict Jack Johnson,” Frenkel said. “Once he was indicted and she was not, the handwriting was on the wall that her case would resolve with a plea.”

After the criminal charges, some residents and public officials pressured Leslie Johnson to step down, but she has retained her seat.

In December, the council took the unusual step of barring Johnson from sitting on committees, where dozens of key decisions are made. The council agreed she may attend committee meetings and vote on bills that come before the full nine-member body.

A court date has not been set in Leslie Johnson’s case.

Jack Johnson was indicted Feb. 14 on bribery charges, and prosecutors allege he accepted more than $200,000 from a developer in return for favors. He pleaded not guilty and said he will fight the charges.

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