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Leslie Johnson pleads to 2 conspiracy counts

P.G. Council member keeps job for now

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

Prince George's County Council member Leslie E. Johnson pleaded guilty Thursday to charges that she flushed a $100,000 check down a toilet and hid tens of thousands of dollars in her bra to keep the money from federal investigators closing in on her husband, former County Executive Jack B. Johnson.

Although the guilty plea will require that she step down from her council job at the latest when she is sentenced on Oct. 13, it was not clear that she had any immediate plans to do so.

“I made a mistake for which I today accepted responsibility for my conduct,” Johnson said outside the federal courthouse in Greenbelt. “I look forward to continuing to serve and making a positive difference to the lives of people in need.”

Johnson, 59, admitted as part of her plea that at the direction of her husband, she flushed the check down a toilet and hid $79,600 in undergarments. A county developer gave her husband the money as a bribe to earn federal funding and county approval of his development projects, the former county executive admitted when he pleaded guilty last month.

Prosecutors are seeking a 12- to 18-month sentence for her guilty pleas on one count each of conspiracy to commit witness and evidence tampering. Her husband faces a sentence between 11 and 13 years.

While elected county officials have largely shied away from commenting on the fate of the couple, several on Thursday called for Johnson to step down from her elected post sooner rather than later.

“I believe the process of healing should not be delayed or deferred and it is in the best interest of Prince George's County that council member Leslie Johnson resign from the County Council,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat, said in a statement.

A resignation would provide time over the council's summer recess to prepare for a special election, which will be held to fill Johnson's seat, Mr. Baker said.

County Council Vice Chairman Eric Olson echoed Mr. Baker's sentiments.

“In light of today's federal guilty plea, I believe Ms. Johnson should resign,” he said.

Based on a County Council member's $96,417 annual salary, Johnson would stand to collect approximately $28,000 in pay if she stayed on the council until she is sentenced in October.

Johnson, a Democrat, was serving her first term on the council. She was elected in November after spending eight years married to the man at the helm of the affluent majority-black county just outside of Washington. Her husband, also a Democrat, spent eight years before that as the county's top prosecutor. Johnson worked as an administrative law judge with the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking.

A total of 15 people, including the Johnsons, face charges stemming from the widespread federal corruption probe in Prince George's County, said U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.

Those who have pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges stemming from the investigation also include multimillionaire developers who offered public officials bribes and county police officers who trafficked in black-market cigarettes and protected shipments of cocaine.

Plea agreements filed in federal court papers have implicated several other unnamed individuals in crimes that would appear to include bribery and federal, state and local campaign finance violations.

Prosecutors have routinely said their investigation is ongoing, and Mr. Rosenstein said Thursday he expects more charges as a result of the probes.

Dressed in a navy blue suit, Johnson read a brief prepared statement after her court appearance but declined to answer questions.

In the courtroom before Judge Peter J. Messitte, she provided short answers to basic questions related to the plea agreement. The appearance stood in contrast to that of her husband, who in May hesitantly answered questions and indicated there was more to his side of the story that he would be unable to share until his sentencing.

Speaking after Johnson's plea, Mr. Rosenstein indicated that during sentencing prosecutors will attempt to make the case that Johnson knew much about her husband's ongoing illicit activities.

While he declined to go into further detail about any new evidence that will be introduced at sentencing, Mr. Rosenstein drew attention to taped phone conversations made just before Johnson was arrested by federal agents at her Mitchellville home.

“She knew about this huge quantity of cash in the basement,” Mr. Rosenstein said.

According to court papers, as federal agents banged on the front door of her home, the former county executive, 65, was recorded telling his wife to tear up the $100,000 check.

“Tear it up. That is the only thing you have to do,” He told his wife, referring to the check, according to prosecutors.

“Do you still have that cash down in the basement?” Johnson is heard asking on the taped phone call.

”Yes,” her husband said.

“OK, I gotta move that, too,” she replied.

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