Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) will be released from federal custody this week after serving more than five years on corruption charges.
Johnson, 68, is on home confinement after being moved from a federal prison in Cumberland to a halfway house in Baltimore in December. He will be on supervised release for three years after his formal release, according to Justin Long, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Johnson served as county executive from 2002 until December 2010. He pleaded guilty in 2011 to evidence tampering and destruction of evidence in a broad corruption scheme he was charged with masterminding. Prosecutors said he received more than $1 million in bribes. His wife, Leslie Johnson, and several developers, county officials and business executives also were implicated.
Johnson and his wife — who was briefly a member of the Prince George’s County Council — were overheard on a wiretap plotting to stash $79,600 in cash in her underwear and flush a $100,000 check that he got as a bribe down the toilet. He also was videotaped taking cash bribes.
Jack Johnson received an 87-month sentence, which was reduced for good behavior, Long said. It was far less than the 14-year maximum the judge could have imposed but one of the longest historically for a Maryland politician in a corruption case.
Johnson, who also is a former county state’s attorney, is returning to a community where he once reigned, but one to which he will have to re-acclimate. He was disbarred in Maryland in 2012 based on his felony conviction; if he wants to practice law again, he will have to petition for reinstatement of his law license. The Maryland Court of Appeals would decide whether to restore it, according to Susan Townshend, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission and Office of Bar Counsel.
Through his pastor, Jonathan Weaver, Johnson declined to comment.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who succeeded Johnson in 2010, said he will welcome his fraternity brother and former political rival back to the county where Johnson’s political career was launched and later toppled.
“One of the things we’re doing a lot of in this administration is returning citizens who were incarcerated back to the community and helping them get their lives back on track,” Baker said. “You want to make sure people have a second chance, and he’s no different.”
Henry T. Arrington Sr., Johnson’s former campaign chairman, said the former county executive’s corruption hurt their relationship, but he added that he has forgiven Johnson.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Arrington, 85. “I have no animosity.”
A native of South Carolina, Johnson moved north to attend law school at Howard University, where he met his future wife. The couple settled in Prince George’s County, where Johnson became the deputy state’s attorney. He was elected the county’s top prosecutor in 1995. In 2002, voters tapped him as county executive, a powerful position that he would hold for eight years.
Johnson said his vision for the county included making it inclusive, particularly for the growing African American population. He billed himself as a reformer who wanted to clean up the police department and the community and restore the county’s image, which had become tarnished over the years.
But from the day he took office, Johnson began doling out contracts, jobs and deals to his friends and political supporters. In August 2006, an investigation by The Washington Post found that Johnson had awarded 51 county contracts totaling more than $3 million to 15 friends and supporters. In some instances, he gave the contracts after failing to persuade the County Council to put those supporters into county jobs. He also created more than a dozen high-profile positions and filled them with friends and fraternity brothers. Some of those who received contracts or jobs had no expertise in the relevant field, and others did not produce written reports required by the county.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money designated for county community projects went to organizations directly connected to the people handing out the funds or linked to Johnson. The county executive also came under fire for using a county-issued credit card to pay for personal expenses totaling thousands of dollars, including for trips home to South Carolina to visit his mother and to Texas to attend his daughter’s wedding reception. The charges were a violation of county policy.
Johnson’s actions attracted the attention of federal investigators. On Nov. 12, 2010, as Johnson spoke to his wife on a phone monitored by law enforcement, federal agents knocked on the door of their home in Mitchellville. Leslie Johnson panicked and asked her husband what to do with a $100,000 check obtained from a bribe and nearly $80,000 in cash stashed in the basement. Johnson instructed her to flush the check and put the cash in her underwear. The agents stormed the house and arrested her. She pleaded guilty to evidence tampering and received a sentence of one year and a day.
Her husband also was arrested.
Alexander Williams Jr., a retired judge for the federal district court in Maryland who said he once had a “close” relationship with Johnson, said he is unsure how residents will react to Johnson’s return.
“I don’t know what type of reception they will have for him,” said Williams, who served as the county’s state’s attorney from 1987 to 1994 and hired Johnson as his deputy.
“He was a good elected official,” Williams said. “He made a poor judgment and has paid a price, and he should have a reasonable opportunity to transition back to the community.”
Prince George’s County Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) agreed and said that Johnson is “looking for a glorious future.”
“It probably will take a little readjustment, but I think he has the ability to move on,” said Patterson, who has known Johnson for two decades. “I think he has much he can still offer this county and the state. He’s still got some of his core groups, and I think he would only have to press a little button.”