Former probation officer pleads guilty to extortion

City woman received payments from offenders in exchange for skipping, ending supervision

July 14, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

For $100, Yolanda R. Johnson promised people that they could skip out on reporting for their weekly probation. For $150, she offered to end court-ordered supervision altogether.

The 33-year-old former probation officer from Baltimore admitted in federal court yesterday that she extorted thousands of dollars last year from 23 probationers convicted of drunken-driving offenses. She pleaded guilty to one count of extortion.

In the end, it was the criminals she was supposed to be supervising who gave her up. They became confidential informants for the FBI, wearing hidden microphones to record evidence of bribes.

"I commend the probationers who did exactly what every citizen should do when a government employee solicits a bribe: Report the extortion to the Federal Bureau of Investigation," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.

Federal prosecutors said probationers paid Johnson between $100 and $325 to have their court-mandated restrictions reduced or eliminated.

"I was just terrified," said one of Johnson's last victims, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears retribution from Johnson. "To me, she was more important than the police."

Johnson's attorney, public defender Gregory Gilchrist, declined to comment. Her sentencing is set for Sept. 15.

Her scheme began to unravel when, in late June 2004, a Baltimore woman on probation for her third conviction for driving while intoxicated contacted the FBI, according to court papers.

At that time, court documents show, her probation was being supervised by the Drinking and Driving Monitor Program of the state's Division of Parole and Probation.

State judges routinely order people convicted of drunken driving to be supervised by the Drinking and Driving Monitor Program and to comply with special conditions of probation. Conditions can include no drinking at all before driving, submitting to urinalysis and Breathalyzer testing, and successfully completing an alcohol detoxification or education program.

The purpose of supervision under the Drinking and Driving Monitor Program, officials say, is to reduce the threat drunken drivers pose and provide an alternative to locking up offenders.

The Baltimore woman told FBI agents that her probation officer was blackmailing her, according to court documents. She complained that Johnson demanded a payment of $100 so that the woman could be reassigned to "unsupervised status," prosecutors said. For $150, Johnson promised to end her probation.

FBI agents said they confirmed the account by recording telephone conversations between Johnson and the woman, and taping a separate conversation at Johnson's office.

During that office visit, the woman paid Johnson $150 from FBI departmental funds.

The next month, another probationer also contacted the FBI and made the same claim. The FBI also recorded his conversations. The Baltimore man paid Johnson $150 with FBI funds.

The FBI later learned that the Baltimore County Police Department also had Johnson under investigation. Probationers, who complained that Johnson was accepting bribes for easing the terms of their probation, had contacted detectives.

One man told Baltimore County detectives that in March 2004, when he refused to pay Johnson $250 to terminate his probation, she threatened to "violate" him, a move that could have sent him to jail.

With the man's consent, detectives recorded his later conversations with Johnson, including a payment of $250 to her.

One of Johnson's last victims said in an interview yesterday that the bribery offer left her frightened.

"She was my probation officer. She knew where I lived," the woman said.

The woman described Johnson as a warm, friendly probation officer who often asked about her family problems. One day, the woman said, Johnson approached her with an offer that would keep her in good standing but not require her to come into the office.

"She said that she could get me no-show probation. But there would be a lot of paperwork involved," she said.

Then Johnson mentioned a payment to process the change in probation.

"I knew right then and there that nothing costs $100," the woman said.

She said she tried to put Johnson off, saying she didn't have the money. When Johnson offered to accompany her to an ATM, the woman said she rummaged through her purse for the funds.

"I was caught between a rock and a hard place," the woman said. "She could just lie about me, and I'd be in jail."

The woman went to the FBI, who told her that Johnson had by then been arrested. "I was shocked," she said. "And I'm still on probation. You'd think I would have been forgiven after all of that."

When sentenced in September, the former probation officer could receive up to 20 years in prison - followed by three years of probation - and have to pay up to $250,000 in fines.

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