Former Prince George's executive faces new U.S. charges

Prosecutors say Johnson took more than $200,000 in bribes in a wide-ranging corruption conspiracy

February 15, 2011|By Maria Glod and Ovetta Wiggins, The Washington Post

Former Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson accepted more than $200,000 in bribes and played a central role in a broad corruption conspiracy that involved other county officials, candidates for public office and at least three developers or business leaders, federal officials alleged in new charges filed Monday.

A 31-page indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt for the first time charges Johnson with soliciting and accepting bribes. It comes three months after Johnson and his wife, Leslie Johnson, were arrested at their home after they allegedly conspired to hide $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson's bra and flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet.

Monday's indictment outlines in detail the scope of the government's corruption probe in Prince George's and alleges how much money Johnson got from developers and what he did in return.

The indictment alleges that the conspiracy lasted from 2003 until November, almost through the entirety of Johnson's eight years in office. It describes a pay-to-play atmosphere in Prince George's during Johnson's tenure and quotes the former county executive in wiretaps talking about shaking down developers seeking federal housing money, and demanding donations for his wife's campaign for county council.

Jack Johnson, 61, said Monday in a written statement that "the time to talk is in court and not in the press."

"I would hope that the people of Prince George's County and elsewhere recognize the growth and progress that occurred during my administration," he wrote. His attorney, Billy Martin, said the indictment "seriously mischaracterizes" Johnson's tenure.

Johnson is the sole person charged in the indictment, but several other public officials and business people are described as co-conspirators. Two of then are listed by name: Johnson and liquor store owner Amrik Melhi, who in November was charged in a scheme to distribute black-market alcohol and cigarettes.

Late last year, two Prince George's police officers and several others were indicted in the alcohol and cigarette scheme, and U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said he expects additional charges in coming weeks and months.

In addition, the indictment alleges that Johnson conspired with two unnamed developers and an unnamed candidate for public office. It also alleges that Johnson's housing director took thousands in bribes from developers seeking funding. That official is not named, but James Johnson, who is not related to the county executive, held the position. James Johnson has not been charged. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Jack Johnson, the county's former top prosecutor, is accused of rewarding those who bribed him by steering millions of dollars in federal grant money, influencing the business permitting process and using his authority to get people jobs.

He accepted money, trip expenses, airline tickets, rounds of golf, mortgage payments and in-kind campaign contributions in return for official favors, the indictment alleges.

Johnson's indictment is the latest blow to a county roiled by a federal probe of corruption that Rosenstein on Monday called "long-standing and widespread."

"Pay-to-play government is not democratic government," Rosenstein said in a statement. "Government employees flagrantly abuse the public trust when they take money in return for official acts."

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who took office in December, vowed reform of the $2.7 billion government during his campaign. He has set up an ethics commission, pledged to stop giving out credit cards to county employees and has told his staff to accept nothing of value, including meals.

Baker's staff was trying to learn more about housing officials who may have been implicated and could still be on the county payroll, county officials said.

Baker's spokesman Scott Peterson said in a statement that the administration would fully cooperate with authorities but could not comment further.

Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), who is awaiting a preliminary hearing set for March on charges of witness tampering and destruction of evidence, has maintained her seat but has been stripped of some responsibilities by the full council.

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