LANSING, MICH. - Michigan Sen. Bert Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Detroit Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and theft from a federal program, accused of paying a "ghost employee" who didn't work for the Senate.
The conspiracy charge is a five-year felony; the theft charge is a ten-year felony, federal officials said.
According to the indictment, Johnson, 43, asked a cooperating witness for a $10,000 loan in October 2013 and later sought to repay the loan by unlawfully placing the woman on his Senate payroll.
“Theft of taxpayer’s money by elected public officials, as these charges allege, is disheartening and will not be tolerated" acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch said in a news release.
The Free Press has identified the FBI cooperating witness who allegedly loaned the money to Johnson, through a person familiar with the investigation, as Glynis Thornton, a vendor who earlier pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks to a Detroit school principal in an earlier major corruption investigation at Detroit Public Schools and the Education Achievement Authority.. Thornton is identified in the indictment only as CW-1.
She repeatedly sought repayment of the loan between October 2012 and March 2014, without success, the indictment says.
"Some time in March 2014, defendant Johnson told CW-! that he could repay the $10,000 loan by placing CW-1 on his State of Michigan senatorial staff payroll," the indictment alleges.
She was hired as a "community liaison" in March 2014 and paid $22 per hour, the indictment alleges. Until Jan. 2, 2015, she received more than $23,000 as a member of Johnson's Senate staff, "when in fact she was a ghost employee."
Reached for comment on the charges, Johnson said, “I’m going to call my lawyers. That’s news to me.”
No arraignment date has been set, officials said. Johnson's attorney, Cyril Hall, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Glynis Thornton — a vendor who pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks to a Detroit principal — appears as a $20-an-hour employee in 2014 on a list of current and former Johnson staff members released by the Senate.
State Sen. Coleman Young, D-Detroit, said he was “gobsmacked and heartbroken” by the news of the indictment.
“He’s a colleague and a friend. I’m beyond devastated,” Young said. “But I don’t see him being able to be in the Senate much longer.”
Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said it was premature to think about Johnson’s future in the Senate.
“Sen. Johnson is innocent until proven guilty,” McCann said. “The Senate will watch to see how the legal process unfolds.
David Gelios, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit office, said Johnson's indictment is "an unfortunate reminder that public officials sometimes squander the public’s trust in exchange for personal gain."
Johnson becomes the third metro Detroit lawmaker touched by criminal scandal in the past year. In February, former state Rep. Brian Banks, Harper Woods, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing false financial statements in a 2010 application for a loan. He gave up his seat in the House and was sentenced to one day in jail.
In March of 2016, former state Sen. Virgil Smith, D-Detroit, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after pleading guilty to shooting at his ex-wife’s Mercedes Benz in 2015. He resigned his seat in the Senate last April.
Two other lawmakers – former state Reps. Todd Courser, R-Lapeer and Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, lost their seats in 2015 in the wake of a sex scandal and cover-up. Both were charged criminally with misconduct in office, but those charges have been dismissed. Courser still faces a May 22 trial on a perjury charge. Courser resigned from his seat moments before the House of Representatives was preparing to vote to expel him from office. Gamrat was expelled by her colleagues in the House.
Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow said the indictment of Johnson marks a sad day for the city.
“It’s really unfortunate to say the least, especially when you have several of these elected officials, African Americans, educators, both male and female, who we have so much high hopes for,” Morrow said, referencing the kickback scandal involving Detroit Public School principals, as well as the charges against Johnson, Banks and Smith.
“You had Banks and now you have Johnson, who the community had high regards for," Morrow said. "Their constituents loved them and some will say they were targeted. But others will say you do the crime, you do the time.”
FBI agents, assisted by the Michigan State Police, raided Johnson's Senate office in Lansing and Highland Park home on March 27, hauling away large volumes of records.
According to court documents, Thornton was accused of paying more than $58,000 in kickbacks to Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp, the Detroit school principal who drove a Maserati with a Gucci vanity plate, in exchange for help with a contract.
Thornton pleaded guilty in February 2016 to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery for her role in an alleged scheme involving schools operated by the state's school reform district, Education Achievement Authority (EAA).
Thornton's sentencing is pending, on Aug. 3. Federal prosecutors have asked for 15 months in prison, down from the 24-30 months recommended earlier.
Johnson is serving his second, and final, term in the state Senate. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2006 and left the House after two terms to successfully run for the Senate in 2010 and was handily reelected in 2014.
He also ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, but finished fourth in a five-person primary contest won by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit.
Johnson has a felony record for armed robbery from a conviction when he was 19. His record was widely known when he won seats in both the state House and Senate.
In 2015, a bench warrant was issued for Johnson's arrest after he failed to appear in an Illinois court in a civil lawsuit over an unpaid debt to a political consulting firm.
Johnson was sued by Chicago-based Paladian Political Group, which said he owed $21,983.37. The issue was resolved without Johnson being arrested.
Johnson also has a history of late campaign finance reports with the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, and several reports are overdue.
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