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

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."

Through her attorney and a friend, Mrs. Johnson declined to be interviewed. A native of Queens and daughter of a physician, she studied history at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically black college that her mother had attended. She received her law degree from Howard University, where she fell in love with Jack, who joked in a recent speech that he met his wife at the library, the place his father had told him to go to find a nice girl.

"He was very serious, and she was very serious - all they did was work," said a law school classmate who still knows the couple and spoke on the condition that she not be identified for fear of jeopardizing their friendship. "Most students carried backpacks. He carried a briefcase."

The Johnsons were married in 1976 and settled two years later in Prince George's, where they raised three children, Nia, 33, a physician, Jack Jr., 31, a businessman, and Zachary, 25.

Mrs. Johnson eschewed the law firm life that many of her Howard classmates chose, preferring a 9-to-5 job that would let her get home to her kids. She worked for the D.C. government for 27 years, becoming an administrative law judge, a post that paid $91,000 when she retired last year.

Meanwhile, Jack became a player on the Prince George's political stage, becoming the county's chief prosecutor before capturing the county executive seat in 2002. If Leslie Johnson played a role in that political ascent, it was not obvious to his advisers.

"We would have meetings of the campaign workers, and very rarely did she show up," said Henry Arrington, Johnson's former campaign chairman. "She always appeared to be supportive of her husband and stayed in the background."

During the 2002 campaign, Mrs. Johnson wrote a letter to voters titled, "If you knew Jack like I know Jack . . . ," in which she described his soul as being "as deep as the ocean."

"When he says or does something, it's because he believes it is right," she wrote.

A new chapter

As the county's first lady, Mrs. Johnson became involved in her husband's personnel decisions, county workers said. William Ritchie, a retired D.C. police administrator, said that Mrs. Johnson interviewed him when he was a candidate for a senior position in the county Department of Homeland Security.

More openly, she presided at ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonies, a well-coiffed if enigmatic representative of her husband's administration. She helped start Leslie's House, a program offering aid to women recently released from prison. The program was later criticized by the County Council because its $300,000 budget seemed too large for the relatively small number of women it helped.

Mrs. Johnson joined neighborhood clean-ups and spoke to girls about keeping out of trouble and being careful about sexual activity. "She would call and ask what we were doing, and she'd join us in planting trees," said Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation.

As Jack Johnson's second term wound down and Mrs. Johnson planned to retire from her D.C. job, some political observers wondered whether she might run for county executive. But she chose to run for the County Council and mounted a campaign that stayed silent about her ties to the county executive.

But Mrs. Johnson benefited from her husband's years in politics, raising more than $80,000 from people who had contributed to his campaigns.

On Sept. 14, she won the Democratic primary, starting a new chapter of her life.

Two months later, two FBI agents knocked on her front door, and Mrs. Johnson made the panicked phone call to her husband that led to their being escorted from their home in handcuffs.

schwartzmanp@washpost.com thomaslestera@washpost.com

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