Prosecutors use Johnson's own words against him
Monday, February 21, 2011; 10:24 PM
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.