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Pr. George's Jack Johnson indicted on corruption charges

By Maria Glod and Ovetta Wiggins
Monday, February 14, 2011; 4:06 PM

Former Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson was indicted on Monday in federal court in Maryland on eight charges, including bribery, witness and evidence tampering and aiding and abetting.

Johnson, 61, a former prosecutor who was the county's top elected official from 2002 to 2010, is accused of playing a key role in a conspiracy that reaches deep into the ranks of power players in the tight-knit government and business communities.

Johnson, along with an unnamed public official, accepted things of value -- including money, trip expenses, airline tickets, rounds of golf, mortgage payments and in-kind campaign contributions -- from business owners and developers in return for official favors, the 31-page indictment states. The indictment alleges that the conspiracy lasted from 2003 until last November, almost through the entirety of Johnson's term.

The indictment doesn't name the other public official, but it says that the official was Johnson's housing director. James Johnson is the former director of the Prince George's County Department of Housing and Community Development.

Johnson, who is not related to the former county executive, was appointed by Jack Johnson and formally sworn in by the county council in November 2009. He served as acting director of the housing department and executive director of the Housing Authority since 2008.

Before his appointment, Johnson, a resident of Camp Springs, worked as a special assistant to the county executive.

The quid-pro-quos provided by Johnson and other officials included helping developers and business owners obtain jobs, business permits and county funding, the indictment states.

The indictment outlines a pay-to-play atmosphere in Prince George's during Johnson's eight years as county executive and for the first time charges Johnson with actually soliciting and receiving a bribe.

"Pay-to-play government is not democratic government," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a written statement. "Anyone who seeks benefits or approvals from the government should be evaluated on the merits, without being extorted for payments or losing out to competitors who pay bribes. Government employees flagrantly abuse the public trust when they take money in return for official acts."

The indictment in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt comes three months after Johnson and his wife, Leslie, 58, a member of the County Council, were arrested at their brick colonial in Mitchellville. The couple were overheard on a wiretap plotting to hide $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson's bra and flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet as FBI agents knocked at the door.

Jack Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment. But after his November arrest he proclaimed his innocence and said he was "absolutely convinced" he would be vindicated.

Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), who was elected Nov. 2, has maintained her seat despite being stripped of some responsibility by the full council. She had been scheduled to appear in court this week, but was granted a delay until March 16 to have additional time to investigate the charges. She was not named as a defendant in the indictment.

Federal authorities have said in court papers that an investigation launched in 2006 revealed that Prince George's County real estate developers were "regularly providing things of value" to public officials in exchange for official favors.

Over the next five years, authorities investigated allegations of a pay-to-play culture and cronyism, court papers show. FBI agents listened in on wiretaps, worked with informants and searched county offices, businesses and private homes. Authorities began tapping Jack Johnson's cell phone in January 2010.

The case became public Nov. 12 when FBI agents--shocked by what they heard on the wiretap--moved forward with Johnson's arrest sooner than they had expected to, sources said. At the time, Jack and Leslie Johnson each were charged with evidence tampering and destruction of evidence.

Court papers filed at the time said the investigation centered on alleged bribes Jack Johnson took in exchange for helping an unidentified developer obtain grant funding from a federal affordable-housing program administered through the county. That developer gave Johnson cash and checks as far back as 2007, the documents state.

The indictment alleges that Johnson took more than $200,000 from the developer in exchange for getting him money from the federal housing program called HOME Investment Partnerships.

The developer received more than $1 million from the federal program, the indictment says.

The indictment says that FBI agents recorded conversations among Johnson, the developer and the housing director, which included shakedowns for cash. In one October conversation between Johnson and his housing director, Johnson suggested: "Why don't me and you go to his house together. .. so he [Developer A] can't wiggle out of [expletive] ... We'll go ah ... one night next week. Then we'll do ah, 1.5, and ah, you and I should get five hundred together," according to the indictment.

Later, Johnson told his housing director that he would keep $300,000 and that the housing director could have the remaining $200,000 they would get from the developer, the indictment said. "No, that'll be good man," Johnson said, according to the indictment. "If I can get myself about three hundred, urn, I'll be in good shape."

During a November meeting secretly recorded by law enforcement, the developer gave Johnson $15,000 in cash, court papers say. When confronted by FBI agents, Johnson told them the money was for a party to mark the end of his term as county executive."

During two terms as county executive, Johnson was a popular figure who prided himself on transforming Prince George's County into "Gorgeous Prince George's." During his tenure, the county's Wall Street Bond rating was raised, and he took credit for improving emergency services and attracting businesses.

But he was also criticized for doling out government contracts to allies not qualified for the work, and for excessive charges on the county credit card.

A Washington Post investigation of Johnson's first term as county executive found he had given 15 friends and allies 51 contracts totaling nearly $3.3 million. The Post also found that Johnson and several County Council members charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses to their county issued credit cards.

Federal officials have said the case against the Johnsons' is part of a broader corruption investigation that also led to the Nov. 15 arrests of seven people, including two Prince George's County police officers, in an alleged scheme to distribute black-market alcohol and cigarettes.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who succeeded Johnson, formed an integrity panel that has met in the wake of the shake-up.

[This post has been updated with additional information about the charges.]

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