Former official avoids jail time

Johnson ordered to repay $92,000 in theft case

Led child-support program

Anne Arundel

January 23, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A former state Cabinet official yesterday was sentenced to six months of house arrest and ordered to repay the $92,000 that he admitted stealing from the Anne Arundel County social services program he ran for about seven years.

An attorney for Brent Millard Johnson, 62, blamed a gambling addiction for leading the once-rising political star to steal from the Child Support Initiative Program, which has since been eliminated.

Johnson, who holds a doctorate in higher education from Catholic University, had served as secretary of the newly created state Department of Employment and Training from 1983 to 1986 under then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes, and before that ran the state board of community colleges.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck said he would have ordered psychological treatment, but Johnson is already receiving counseling. Manck said the case shows that addiction affects people at all economic levels.

He sentenced the Annapolis resident to three years in prison, with all of it suspended except for six months of house arrest. While serving five years of probation, Johnson is to repay the money to the Department of Social Services and complete 250 hours of community service.

"What the judge did was consistent with what the judges of our county and the other counties do," said Assistant State's Attorney Warren W. Davis III.

Davis had asked for "significant incarceration" on the two of 900 charges that Johnson pleaded guilty to last month. State guidelines call for up to six months in jail.

But defense attorney George S. Lantzas prevailed after arguing that Johnson, a recovering alcoholic, was in treatment for gambling and other problems.

The only defense witness, lawyer Mareen L. Duvall Jr., said he helped Johnson get sober 12 years ago but that Johnson thought he could handle the gambling problem himself. This case, however, changed that.

"It's just been catastrophic - it's crushed him, it has ruined his life," Duvall said. "It's ruined his credibility in the community."

Johnson expressed remorse, and Lantzas described him as so ashamed that he looks as if "he is trying to shrink into the cracks in the sidewalk."

The sentence infuriated a few of Johnson's former clients who attended the hearing. Outside the courtroom, they said they would never have escaped a jail term for a $92,000 theft.

"I wouldn't have gotten it," said John Spencer of Annapolis, who estimated he owes about $8,000 in past-due child support. "If you want to call a thief a thief, then he's a thief."

"What would happen to me if I would steal $92,000?"

The negotiated restitution figure of $92,000 was one-fourth of the $368,000 prosecutors alleged that Johnson stole.

"It became clear to this member of the bench that there were an awful lot of counts that would be very difficult if not impossible to prove," the judge said, alluding to an obvious issue prosecutors had with the case.

The program was designed to help parents who owed child support get jobs and education. Parents who participated received a weekly stipend of about $100, some of which was to go toward child support. Prosecutors alleged that from July 1998 to August 2001 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. It was alleged that he stole from 117 fathers in the program.

With the checks cashed, prosecutors could account only for the dollars that actually went to child support payments. The men would have had to testify about the rest of the cash. But most of the men had criminal records, could not be located, were in prison, moved out of the area or did not respond to court notices - some after learning that they would receive no restitution because the state was the victim.

Also, prosecutors know that Johnson dipped into his pockets to help some of the men with loans that were not documented.

Johnson's affinity for gambling was long known, and Davis said the tip in this case came from someone who called the county executive's office to report that Johnson was at a local racetrack.

Davis said prosecutors obtained records of his winnings at local tracks.

DSS officials said they have no special plan for handling any requests from program participants who claim that Johnson didn't make their child support payments as he promised.

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