Prince George's Co. executive, wife charged in federal case

Johnsons accused of tampering with witness, evidence

November 12, 2010|By Paul Schwartzman, Ruben Castaneda and Cheryl W. Thompson, The Washington Post

Just after 10:12 a.m. Friday, Leslie Johnson frantically phoned her husband, Jack B. Johnson, the Prince George's county executive.

Two FBI agents were at the front door of their two-story brick colonial in Mitchellville.

"Don't answer it," the county executive said, unaware that more agents were listening in.

According to an FBI affidavit, Johnson ordered his wife to find and destroy a $100,000 check from a real estate developer that was hidden in a box of liquor.

"Do you want me to put it down the toilet?" Leslie Johnson asked.

"Yes, flush that," the county executive said.

But what about the cash, she asked — $79,600.

Put it in your underwear, the county executive told his wife.

She replied, "I have it in my bra" — which is where agents discovered the money after she answered the door.

That conversation, as documented in the affidavit, led to the arrest Friday of Jack Johnson and his wife. Each was charged with evidence tampering and destroying evidence in a case the U.S. attorney called the "tip of the iceberg" in a broader corruption investigation in Prince George's.

"We don't go on fishing expeditions," U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said at a news conference. "We expect additional defendants and additional charges."

Appearing Friday night outside the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Johnson vowed to fight.

"I'm innocent of these charges," he said. "I just can't wait for the facts to come out. When they come out, I'm absolutely convinced I'll be vindicated."

Johnson, 61, is in the waning days of his second term in office. His administration has been the target of allegations of cronyism and corruption since his 2002 election. He was silent as FBI agents led him and his wife separately from their home at about 1 p.m. Johnson, the county's former chief prosecutor, wore a suit jacket on his shoulders, concealing his handcuffs.

Leslie Johnson, 58, who won election this month to the Prince George's County Council, held a blue coat up over her face as an agent escorted her to a waiting sedan.

After a brief hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Connolly ordered Jack Johnson released and placed under electronic monitoring.

His wife was released on her own recognizance, and both were ordered to surrender their passports. The Johnsons each face 20 years in prison if convicted.

The Johnsons' arrests grew out of a four-year FBI investigation into developers and their associates "regularly providing things of value to public officials" in exchange for official favors, according to a 10-page affidavit filed with the criminal complaint.

The investigation centered on alleged bribes Jack Johnson took in exchange for helping an unidentified developer seek grant money from a federal affordable-housing program administered by the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

The developer gave Johnson cash and checks as far as back as 2007, including one for $100,000, according to the affidavit.

More recently, on Nov. 5, in what appears to be part of a sting, the developer gave Johnson $5,000 in cash in a transaction that investigators recorded.

On Friday, Johnson met again with the developer, who gave the county executive $15,000 in cash, the affidavit said. After the payment, FBI agents confronted Johnson about the alleged bribe. Johnson explained that the money was for a "party marking the end of his term as county executive," according to the affidavit, written by FBI Special Agent Wendy H. Munoz.

The agents searched Johnson and found the $15,000 on him. The agents told the county executive they would not arrest him and that he could leave, but then they monitored his phone conversation with his wife.

After Leslie Johnson told her husband about the agents at the door, he urged her to find the $100,000 check and "Tear it up! That is the only thing you have to do," Munoz wrote, quoting the monitored conversation.

After she asked if she should flush the check down the toilet, agents listening to their call on a wiretap "overheard a flushing toilet … in the background," the document said.

Steve Willsey, a plumber who arrived at Johnson's home shortly after 1 p.m., said he was summoned by the FBI.

"I'm checking the toilet to make sure there is nothing in them," he said. "So far I haven't found anything."

Jack Johnson was not charged with actually taking or soliciting the bribes outlined in the FBI affidavit, but prosecutors said in court that they weren't done.

"This is a very, very long investigation involving voluminous wiretaps and numerous cooperating witnesses," Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell said. "The case is likely to expand."

As agents descended on Johnson's home, federal investigators from the FBI and IRS also were executing search warrants at the Upper Marlboro headquarters of the Prince George's County government.

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