Leslie Johnson's arrest at odds with image as judge, devoted mother

Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's County's executive, was arrested Nov. 12 as federal investigators executed search warrants at the County Administration Building. His wife, Leslie Johnson, was also arrested. Each was charged with evidence tempering and destroying evidence.
By Avis Thomas-Lester and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 9:02 PM

Leslie E. Johnson's colleagues wandered into the audience in Upper Marlboro on Tuesday to greet supporters and accept congratulations for starting a new political era in Prince George's County.

But the newly elected County Council member from District 6 - and wife of the exiting county executive, Jack B. Johnson - remained in her seat, prim in a blue suit and gold earrings, bearing enough political baggage to fill a moving van.

When the clerk called Mrs. Johnson's name, she said only "present," then returned to gazing impassively at the crowd. When the session ended, even as her colleagues greeted well-wishers at a reception and attended a news conference, Mrs. Johnson did not linger or glad hand. She ignored reporters' questions and disappeared behind a door.

For two decades, Mrs. Johnson has been the silent partner in the political career of her husband, a life that unraveled when both were arrested Nov. 12. Although he was a perpetual campaigner, always out and about, she nurtured her own identity, working as an administrative law judge and returning home to make sure their kids did their homework.

Yet with six words she spoke to her husband in a frantic telephone call - words recorded by the FBI as agents were poised to visit their home - Mrs. Johnson traded a lifetime of anonymity for one moment of indelible notoriety.

"I have it in my bra," Leslie told Jack Johnson, referring to $79,600 he told her to hide from investigators, according to a federal affidavit. The line would be repeated in news accounts as far away as Taiwan.

During the same call, investigators heard a flushing sound after the county executive had instructed his wife to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet in their two-story brick colonial in Mitchellville.

Like her husband, Mrs. Johnson was charged with evidence tampering and attempting to destroy evidence and could face up to 20 years in prison. Tuesday, her new colleagues on the County Council cut a deal to keep her off any council committee.

"She was always an independent person who did her own thing, and at the same time, she was the one who made the family work," said Doyle Neiman, an assistant state's attorney who worked on Jack Johnson's campaigns and got to know Leslie, helping her write a letter to voters promoting her husband.

Now, Neiman said, "her life will be defined by the money in the bra."

Conflicting image

That image of Leslie Johnson is confounding to those who know her as a person of measured words - bright, well-groomed and demure, a devoted mother and grandmother, knowledgeable about national politics, devouring books about presidents.

"She always carried herself as a lady," said Judy Mickens-Murray, a former member of the Prince George's school board. "She always projected an image of civility and a moral code."

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