- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012

A developer who pleaded guilty to bribing former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson before cooperating with authorities was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Thursday.

For years, Mirza Hussain Baig paid thousands of dollars in bribes to Johnson, some in exchange for his associates being hired at various agencies and others for the approval of federal grants that financed his projects.

It was after a videotaped exchange on Nov. 12, 2010, at Baig’s private doctor’s office that investigators confronted Johnson about accepting a $15,000 bribe, sending him into a panic that unearthed additional evidence and ensnared his wife, a former County Council member.

Baig’s cooperation earned him some leniency, as he initially faced up to 80 months in prison.

“When Mr. Baig was approached, he immediately began to cooperate,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney A. David Copperthite. “He did put himself at risk very early on.”

In addition to the 18-month prison sentence, Judge Peter J. Messitte also ordered Baig to serve two years of supervised release and to pay a $50,000 fine on top of a $250,000 forfeiture.

Authorities said Baig paid between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes to both Johnson and the former director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, James E. Johnson. The two men are not related.

“You were involved in significant corruption,” Judge Messitte said in sentencing Baig at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. “You took advantage of the situation.”

During the hearing, Judge Messitte repeatedly asked for clarification on what Baig, 68, got out of the money he paid both Johnsons. At times, Baig himself stood to answer questions when prosecutors strained to put a dollar figure on the value of items he received through the pay-to-play deals.

For a cluster of 11 homes known as Romwood Square, Baig paid the county $600,000, which prosecutors noted was significantly below market value.

“Mistakenly I bought the property,” Baig said, adding that it was overrun by drug dealers and that he invested $400,000 in repairs.

But he was later paid $1.2 million from a nonprofit organization that bought the majority of control over the property from him, Mr. Copperthite said. He secured $1.7 million in federal grants for the development of the low-income housing property with help from the former county executive.

Baig’s defense attorney said his client actually got much less than alleged out of the deals at another property, the Commons at Addison Road, in which Baig still has a stake.

“He actually got nothing. He didn’t get anything because none of those leases were approved,” Baig’s attorney, Paul Kemp, said. “He is still a partner there, but it is a dead project.”

Had the development moved forward, it would have been worth tens of millions of dollars, prosecutors said.

Baig, a physician, is president of Laurel Lakes Primary Care LLC and also owned Baig Ventures, which was a commercial and residential development company in the county from at least 1992.

Among other favors prosecutors said Baig gained out of paying Johnson was help securing a job as a physician at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly for a woman who was poorly qualified. Baig paid $50,000. The woman is no longer employed at the hospital. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said he could not confirm whether investigators are looking into her hiring.

Jack Johnson was sentenced to 87 months in prison in December, and James E. Johnson, 67, was sentenced to 37 months in prison last month.

Baig pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion in April 2011, five months after Johnson was arrested.

“My judgment was a little fuzzy,” said Baig, who wore a navy blue suit and had his arm in a sling from recent shoulder surgery. “He was a friend to me in the past.”