18 months given in extortion case

Ex-probation officer pressured her drunken-driving clients to pay for allowing them leniency

Baltimore & Region

November 05, 2005|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

A federal judge in Baltimore sentenced a former probation officer to 18 months in prison yesterday, saying that she had violated the public's trust when she extorted thousands of dollars from people convicted of drunken driving offenses in return for leniency.

Yolanda R. Johnson, 33, of Baltimore bristled as U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz announced the sentence, which will be followed by three years of probation. He also ordered her to pay nearly $4,000 in restitution to the victims.

Before hearing the sentence, Johnson's attorney had told Motz he should consider that Johnson was a single mother caring for a 7-year-old daughter and the effect that jail time would have on her battle against drug addiction, which flared up after her arrest.

"No one will ever know how truly sorry I am," Johnson told the court.

Motz replied: "I am not unsympathetic to your condition." But the judge said that Johnson's "betrayal of trust" was "intolerable" and required prison time.

After the hearing, an angry Johnson stormed out of the courtroom, saying, "We should have gone to trial."

Motz is allowing her to serve the sentence at a later, undetermined date.

For almost an hour yesterday morning, the prosecutor and public defender in the case presented very different pictures of Johnson.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke portrayed Johnson as cold and calculating.

He detailed how she pressured her victims into withdrawing cash at automated teller machines, hawked valuables at a pawnshop and asked a father, who owned a barbershop, for money from his cash register.

Clarke argued that Motz should consider harsher penalties because of the extraordinary control that Johnson exercised over the futures of her victims.

"If they didn't do what she said, their lives could be ruined," the prosecutor said. "How they could not be vulnerable is hard to understand."

Gregory Gilchrist, an assistant federal public defender, gave a lengthy, impassioned defense of a woman who he said had beaten back a heroin addiction only to fall prey to a crippling set of financial setbacks.

Johnson, a high school graduate who later obtained a cosmetology license, became addicted to heroin in the early 1990s but kicked the habit by 1994, Gilchrist said.

But, he said, Johnson experienced a series of subsequent misfortunes: a stroke at age 29 that required long-term pain management; a broken marriage; eviction from her home; and a defaulted loan that forced her into homelessness.

"She is not a hardened criminal," Gilchrist said in court, arguing that Johnson's crimes were prompted by a desperate need to pay her bills and support her daughter.

Gilchrist asked the judge to sentence Johnson to one year of home detention and two years of probation. Under the law, Johnson could have received 20 years in prison - followed by three years of probation - and have to pay up to $250,000 in fines.

Johnson held considerable influence over convicted drunken drivers who were ordered by state judges to be supervised by the Drinking and Driving Monitor Program as part of their probation. The purpose of the program is to reduce the threat drunken drivers pose and provide an alternative to locking them up.

For $100, Johnson promised people that they could skip out on reporting each week at her Dundalk office. For $150, she offered to end court-ordered supervision altogether.

Prosecutor said she extorted thousands of dollars last year from 23 probationers.

Johnson's downfall came when her clients became confidential informants for the FBI, wearing hidden microphones to record evidence of bribes. As a result, Johnson pleaded guilty in July to one count of extortion.

Clarke argued for a three-year prison sentence, calling Johnson's treatment of convicted drunken drivers "an extraordinary risk to the public's safety."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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