- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2012

The former director of the Prince George’s County Department of Housing and Community Development was sentenced to more than three years in prison Monday for his role in the pay-to-play scheme that ensnared former County Executive Jack B. Johnson.

Judge Peter J. Messitte handed down a 37-month prison sentence to James E. Johnson, 67, who pleaded guilty last year in U.S. District Court in Maryland to conspiracy to commit extortion.

At his sentencing, Johnson, who was appointed to the director’s position by Jack Johnson in 2009, said he was not prepared for the job and lamented the “terrible mistake” that led to his arrest.

“Even though I protested many times, I was placed in the position of director,” James Johnson told the court. “I was totally unfamiliar with this job, but I wanted to do a good job anyway.”

Johnson, a former elementary schoolteacher who is no relation to the former county executive, was among a number of public officials and business operators arrested after a wide-ranging federal investigation unearthed a scheme in which developers paid public officials hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for preferential treatment of their development projects. He pleaded guilty in January 2011, but his plea remained under seal until May, when Jack Johnson also pleaded guilty to extortion and bribery charges.

According to his plea agreement, James and Jack Johnson were paid between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes from developers and others in exchange for political favors. As director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, Johnson oversaw an $80 million budget and administered federal development grants. According to the statement of facts in his plea agreement, Johnson accepted $54,000 in 2010 from developers Mirza Baig and Patrick Ricker, among others. Baig and Ricker have pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced later this year.

Though he was appointed as the county’s housing director in 2009, prosecutors said Johnson’s involvement in the pay-to-play scheme stretches back to 2006.

“The defendant was involved in the largest public corruption in Maryland in a generation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell IV said at the sentencing. “Over five years, this defendant accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.”

Johnson told the court Monday that he accepted responsibility for his actions.

“I’m truly sorry for what I did, for the hurt and shame that this has caused,” he said. “If you want to talk about somebody going to hell, I have been there. This has rattled my life.”

As part of his sentence, Johnson also will be on probation for two years after his release from prison and must pay a $25,000 fine. That is in addition to the $46,300 that authorities seized from a safe-deposit box he controlled, prosecutors said.

Johnson’s attorney, Gregory Lattimer, argued for a reduced fine, stating that Johnson might have trouble selling property he owns in South Carolina in order to make the payment before he reports to prison in June.

“If you have to liquidate one or more of those properties, I think it’s appropriate to do so,” Judge Messitte said.

Accompanied by four women as he left the courtroom, Johnson ignored requests for comment.