- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2011

For virtually his entire eight years as Prince George’s County executive, federal authorities say, Jack B. Johnson sat atop an expansive and lucrative pay-for-play fiefdom.

According to a federal indictment unsealed Monday charging Mr. Johnson with corruption, the former county executive was captured on a wiretap advising another official on just how profitable politics in Prince George’s County could be.

“Two years you got a couple hundred thousand dollars, you know, cash, then you can go and … get your little retirement,” Mr. Johnson said, according to authorities. “You know what I mean?”

Mr. Johnson, 61, of Mitchellville, Md., was charged in the indictment with conspiracy, extortion and bribery related to the performance of his official duties, along with charges of tampering with a witness and evidence. The charges, unsealed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., carry a potential decades-long prison term.

“Pay-to-play government is not democratic government,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. “Anyone who seeks benefits or approvals from the government should be evaluated on the merits, without being extorted for payments or losing out to competitors who pay bribes.

“Government employees flagrantly abuse the public trust when they take money in return for official acts,” Mr. Rosenstein said.

According to the 31-page indictment, Mr. Johnson, a former prosecutor, and others took “money, trip expenses, meals, drinks, hotel rooms, airline tickets, rounds of golf, employment, mortgage payments, and monetary and in-kind campaign contributions” from developers whose needs were met personally by Mr. Johnson and other county officials.

A typical tactic, according to the indictment, was for developers to bribe county officials with supposed campaign contributions that exceeded legal state limits and were kept concealed from election authorities.

In one exchange captured on a wiretap, according to the indictment, Mr. Johnson told Amrik Singh Melhi, a developer and liquor store owner who already faces a separate federal indictment, that his wife’s campaign for Prince George’s County Council needed “help.”

“We need to do some fundraising then,” Mr. Melhi responded, authorities said.

Mr. Melhi, who is charged in the separate case with paying off police officers to help ship untaxed alcohol and cigarettes in Maryland and Virginia, is the only developer named in the indictment. An indictment in that case named Mr. Melhi and six others, including his wife, Ravinder, and two officers. It seeks the forfeiture of $3.5 million, 25 properties, 13 vehicles and money from 84 bank accounts that authorities say they traced to the purported crimes.

The Johnson indictment alleges that the former county executive also took bribes from several developers seeking to take part in a federal program that gives local governments money to disburse for the construction, purchase or renovation of affordable housing.

Among the bribes Mr. Johnson accepted from developers, according to authorities, was a $100,000 check.

In exchange, prosecutors said, Mr. Johnson helped certain developers obtain county land and obtain necessary business and development permits and provided them with nonpublic county information.

Law enforcement closed in on Mr. Johnson in November.

A wiretapped conversation taken as FBI agents prepared to raid his home reveal a frantic Mr. Johnson, who was not home at the time, instructing his wife to destroy and flush down the toilet a $100,000 check from a developer and to hide nearly $80,000 in her undergarments.

“OK, um, put it in your bra or something,” he said at one point, according to the indictment.

Later, he said: “Yeah, stuff it in your panties. Yeah, tell them you were in the bathroom. Right? I’ll be home in a minute, too. OK. And then just … and then just open the door and sit down. OK?”

When FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents entered the home, they quickly searched Mrs. Johnson and found $79,600.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were arrested that day on evidence- and witness-tampering charges.

The indictment against Mr. Johnson includes the tampering charges as well as the new corruption allegations. Mrs. Johnson, who is still a member of the County Council, was not indicted Monday and faces only the tampering charges.

Authorities said they will seek the forfeiture of property related to Mr. Johnson’s purported schemes, including the $79,600 seized from his wife.

Mr. Johnson’s attorney, William Martin, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Johnson, after his November arrest, said he was “innocent of these charges,” could not wait “for the facts to come out” and was “absolutely convinced” he would be vindicated.

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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