- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, the face of a wide-ranging federal corruption probe that has netted business owners, developers and government employees, was sentenced Tuesday to more than seven years in prison for accepting up to $1 million in bribes while in office.

In a packed courtroom in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Judge Peter J. Messitte handed down a sentence mostly in line with prosecutors’ recommendations — 87 months in prison, three years of supervised release and a $100,000 fine — and rejected defense arguments for leniency based on a jarring disclosure that Johnson has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“This was not a single act of bribery,” Judge Messitte said. “This was not a simple wrong turn. This was a deliberate march down a long path of kleptocracy.”

Johnson, 62, faced up to 14 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, time the judge reduced during the more than two-hour hearing because of Johnson’s cooperation with investigators.

But Johnson’s attorneys said even a much lesser sentence would be too difficult on their client, considering his age and his deteriorating health.

“He appears to be going downhill relatively quickly,” defense attorney Jeffrey Harding said. “To sentence Mr. Johnson to a long period of incarceration is a death sentence for him.”

Mr. Harding said Johnson, who entered the courtroom with a cane, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in April but has showed symptoms such as tremors since last year.

Prosecutors were skeptical of the claim, arguing that Johnson may have simply exhibited Parkinson’s-like symptoms. Seven days after the date his attorneys said he was diagnosed, a surveillance team photographed Johnson playing a full round of golf and carrying a heavy bag, Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell IV said.

Defense attorneys said the activity was recommended by doctors to help Johnson with his illness.

Johnson, who led Prince George’s from 2002 to December 2010 and was the county’s top prosecutor for eight years before that, pleaded guilty in May to charges of extortion and witness and evidence tampering.

Prosecutors said he and other co-conspirators extorted more than $1.6 million in bribes in exchange for favors that totaled more than $10 million in value, including the procurement of federal housing grants for developers and help obtaining surplus property from the county.

“This case doesn’t end our efforts,” Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland said Tuesday, adding he could not disclose the nature of Johnson’s cooperation agreement.

Despite his guilty plea, Johnson will continue to collect a nearly $50,000 annual pension because he was not found guilty of the crimes while in office.

Other co-conspirators who have also pleaded guilty to related charges include doctor and developer Mirza Baig, former Prince George’s County Director of Housing and Urban Development James Johnson (no relation to Jack Johnson), and developer Patrick Ricker. All three men are scheduled to be sentenced in March.

The story of Johnson’s rise from poor and rural Johns Island in South Carolina to leader of the affluent majority-black county seemed to resonate with voters.

Speaking on his own behalf inside a crowded courtroom, Johnson apologized to the county and to his wife and ticked off the toll his crimes have taken on him.

“Judge, I’ve lost everything — my reputation, all the things I worked for coming off that little island and putting myself through school,” he said, later adding, “I just hope you understand that I’m sorry.”

Defense attorney William Martin highlighted several of his client’s accomplishments, including bringing the high-end Wegman’s grocery store to the county.

“He didn’t buy his way into office. He didn’t cheat his way in here,” Mr. Martin said.

Johnson left the Greenbelt courthouse flanked by church leaders and supporters. His sentence will begin Feb. 3, and Johnson has requested that the term be served at Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina, a facility that would be able to accommodate prisoners with serious illnesses like Parkinson’s disease.

Johnson’s wife, former County Council member Leslie E. Johnson, did not attend the sentencing. She is due in court Friday for her own sentencing before Judge Messitte.

Leslie Johnson faces up to 18 months in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit witness tampering and evidence tampering. The offenses stem from her attempts to hide her husband´s bribe money as FBI agents raided the couple´s Mitchellville home in November 2010.

In wiretapped phone conversations between the couple that day, Jack Johnson could be heard directing his wife to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and hide tens of thousands of dollars in her bra.

“I called her that Friday, and I never should have at all,” Johnson said in court Tuesday, adding that she was not involved.