Suspect had political ambition

Arrest of Arundel man on charges of stealing stuns his associates

May 24, 2002|By Ariel Sabar and Andrea F. Siegel | Ariel Sabar and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

In the 1980s, Brent M. Johnson, a dashing former Air Force captain, was a rising star in the state's political world.

His achievements as head of the state community college system were impressive enough that Gov. Harry R. Hughes named him secretary of a new Cabinet-level agency that aggressively sought jobs and training for unemployed Marylanders. Soon, Johnson was entertaining his own ambitions for elected office, drawing support from teachers unions and a local chapter of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in a 1986 bid for state Senate.

When Johnson was charged this week with stealing $368,000 from a government program he led that helped single parents make child support payments, his former colleagues were left bewildered.

"I was shocked," said Sheila Tolliver, a former senior aide to Hughes who is now a member of the Annapolis city council. "The nature of the program he was administering was the kind of program and the kind of people that he really had -- I thought had -- a genuine feeling for."

Until they noticed an inexplicable surge in the program's costs, his bosses at the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services said, they never doubted Johnson's integrity.

The Child Support Initiative Program, as it was called, had won plaudits from judges, academic researchers and child-welfare advocates. Sociable and suave, Johnson seemed to go out of his way to help his down-and-out clientele, even scrounging money for dental work for those whose toothless smiles made a negative impression on prospective employers.

"He seemed to have a real understanding and identification with some of the disadvantaged people we're trying to reach," said Edward R. Bloom, the director of the county social services agency.

Yet even as he was winning praise for the innovative program, say prosecutors, he was stealing stipend checks intended for the single parents it was supposed to be helping. He resigned in August, after his superiors noticed accounting irregularities and a near doubling in program costs -- and alerted state investigators.

Prosecutors lodged 91 charges against him Wednesday and say they plan to file at least 700 more, alleging he forged checks, stole money and misappropriated government funds in the three years before his resignation last summer. Prosecutors said yesterday that they are trying to figure out where the money might have gone.

Johnson's lawyer would not respond in detail to the charges but said Johnson, 61, plans a vigorous defense. A woman who answered the door at Johnson's Annapolis townhouse last night said, "We won't be talking to any reporters."

Johnson had swept onto the state's political scene nearly as quickly as he disappeared from it.

Born in rural New England, he left the Air Force in 1968 and earned a doctorate in education administration from the Catholic University of America, in Washington.

After a stint as a college basketball coach, he landed a job in 1970 with the state Board for Community Colleges, a governing body for the state's fast-growing junior college system. Johnson pressed the colleges to adopt programs teaching usable job skills, and in 1975 he was appointed the board's executive director, a job he held for the next eight years.

Hughes, during his campaign for a second term as governor, had pledged to create a Cabinet-level agency to run job training and unemployment insurance programs. Johnson campaigned vigorously for the job, and in 1983 Hughes made him the first secretary of the newly minted Department of Employment and Training.

"He was responsive and aggressive," recalls Michael F. Canning, Hughes' former aide and chief of staff.

In 1984, Johnson told a legislative panel that he knowingly broke the law by exempting 2,400 laid-off General Motors workers from a requirement that they look for jobs before collecting unemployment benefits. He vowed never to bend the rules again, and lawmakers let the matter pass.

It was during this period that former associates and acquaintances said they began to notice an appetite for gambling, and he was known to spend long hours at racetracks betting on horses. Johnson's lawyer declined to comment on the issue yesterday.

He resigned from the secretary's post in 1986 to challenge state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad in the Democratic primary in the district covering Annapolis and the Broadneck Peninsula. He lost by a landslide, and dropped out of public view, taking a job as a vice president at the University of the District of Columbia, where he had once worked as a part-time professor.

He returned to social service in 1991, taking a job with the Anne Arundel agency. He directed literacy programs before his bosses assigned him in the mid-1990s to a $51,688-a-year job overseeing the Child Support Initiative Program just as it was getting off the ground.

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