Ex-DSS official is charged in $368,000 theft

Annapolis man headed Anne Arundel project

Program designed to aid parents

91 counts unsealed

funds for child support affected

May 23, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The former director of an innovative Anne Arundel County social services project was charged yesterday with stealing $368,000 from the program, including money that was supposed to go toward child support.

Prosecutors said the 91-count criminal information unsealed yesterday was the start of a wave of nearly 800 charges expected to be lodged against Brent Millard Johnson, 61, of Annapolis.

Because court computers cannot handle more than 99 counts per multiple-count document, the additional charges will be filed in coming days, prosecutors said.

Johnson is accused of felony theft, passing forged checks and misappropriation of government funds from an Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services program that was designed to help parents who owed child support find jobs. The charges cover three years, starting in July 1998 and ending August of last year, when an audit pointed to financial disparities.

About 115 parents in the Child Support Initiative Program are believed to be victims, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said. Some lost more than $7,000, prosecutors said.

Some victims told prosecutors that they were wrongly jailed for nonsupport as a result of the thefts. But Weathersbee and Assistant State's Attorney Clifford C. Stoddard Jr. said yesterday that they were unsure whether that is correct, though they might be looking into the accusations as part of the case.

Weathersbee said his office has not prosecuted a theft of this magnitude. That it was "a theft from the public" was disturbing, he said.

"These participants, we believe, were vulnerable, because they are not the most educated," the prosecutor said.

Judge Joseph P. Manck, the administrative judge of the county Circuit Court, said judges will take into account the predicament of parents caught in the middle of the alleged theft.

Parents who participated in the program received a weekly stipend of about $100, some of which was to go toward child support. Prosecutors allege that Johnson cashed some of these checks for participants, some of whom don't have bank accounts, and promised to pass on the child support payments.

"They needed help in getting the checks cashed," Weathersbee said. "Mr. Johnson helped them cash the checks and he helped them disburse the money. He didn't disburse the money appropriately, and the participants thought it was going to pay their child support. But it didn't."

Samuel Butler, 43, of Annapolis was among the participants, and is believed to have been shortchanged about $4,300.

"I was behind [in child support payments]," Butler said. "I am almost finished paying. If I had gotten the money, ... I'd be done paying."

Johnson, who has been aware of the investigation, turned himself in yesterday morning and was released on his own recognizance. His lawyer, George S. Lantzas, said he plans to examine the program's accounting practices as part of his defense.

"Mr. Johnson periodically lent some of these people money out of his own pockets," Lantzas added.

The maximum sentence for felony theft, the most serious of the charges, is 15 years in prison.

The Child Support Initiative Program, praised by the University of Maryland and the Child Welfare League of America, began in 1994 to help noncustodial parents who had fallen thousands of dollars behind in support payments find and keep jobs.

Paid for through a combination of $200,000 to $400,000 in state funds and $200,000 in county funds each year, it helped participants get job training, paid transportation costs and covered dental work, said Lawrence S. Housman, assistant director for administration for the county Department of Social Services.

The program generally had 150 participants at a time, and parents stayed in it about six months.

"Back last summer, we internally noticed that the program expenditures seemed to be getting a little higher than they should be," Housman said.

At the same time, an anonymous tip alleging theft came in, and the case was referred to the inspector general's office of the state Department of Human Resources.

"They determined that there was some impropriety, and they turned it over to the state's attorney's office," Housman said. Prosecutors have been investigating about nine months.

Johnson, who according to court records lives in the 500 block of Samuel Chase Way, was asked to quit last summer, Housman said. Johnson's lawyer said his client is unemployed.

DSS officials will eliminate the program July 1 because of state budget cuts, Housman said.

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