Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson on Tuesday pleaded guilty to two felony charges involving thousands of dollars in bribes he solicited as part of a “pay-to-play” culture federal authorities say he fostered throughout his two terms in office.
Johnson, who led Prince George’s from 2002 to December and was the county’s top prosecutor for eight years before that, entered his guilty plea in federal court in Greenbelt on charges of extortion and witness and evidence tampering.
As part of the plea, he admitted accepting a $100,000 check from a county developer in exchange for securing federal funding for the developer’s projects in Prince George’s County. He also admitted to instructing his wife, County Council member Leslie Johnson, to destroy the check as federal agents came to his home to serve a search warrant.
“The mountain of evidence and Jack Johnson’s admission of guilt paint a shocking picture of almost a decade of greed and deceit,” said Leo Taddeo, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI Baltimore field office, after the hearing.
Under the agreement announced Tuesday, prosecutors will not pursue six other counts.
The two counts to which Johnson, 62, pleaded guilty each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein said sentencing guidelines for the case recommend an 11- to 13-year jail sentence. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 15.
Both in court, where he provided hesitant answers to U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte’s questions, and outside the courthouse after entering his guilty plea, Johnson indicated there was more to his side of the story that he was unable to share until his sentencing.
“I wish I could talk about this case and will do so in the future,” said the former county executive, who dressed in a crisp dark suit and was accompanied by his attorney and an entourage of ministers.
Throughout his time as county executive, Johnson remained popular among residents. The story of his rise from a poor and rural part of South Carolina to leader of the affluent majority-black county seemed to resonate with voters, whom he often networked with at Sunday church services.
“I’m very sorry for what happened,” he said. “We all sin and fall short of the glory of the Lord.”
Johnson’s plea agreement sheds light on the depth of corruption that ran through swaths of county government for years and names several major players who previously entered into secret plea agreements with federal prosecutors. The plea agreements of the three, 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, were unsealed Tuesday.
The plea agreements revealed Baig was “Developer A,” the developer clandestinely mentioned in previous court documents. Baig, 67, of Burtonsville pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to commit extortion and admitted to paying Jack and James Johnson between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes from 2006 to 2010. He ran Baig Ventures, a commercial and residential developer in the county since at least 1992.
In exchange for bribes, Baig received the county executive´s assistance concerning several development projects, including the receipt of $1.7 million in federal block grants to pay for the renovation of 11 homes to be rented to low-income residents.
James Johnson, 66, of Temple Hills, pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to commit extortion and admitted to accepting bribes from both Baig and Ricker. Jack Johnson appointed him as the county’s housing director in 2009.
Ricker, 52, of Bowie, pleaded guilty in December 2009 to conspiracy to commit fraud and tax evasion. The president of Ricker Brothers, a commercial brokerage and development consulting firm, Ricker admitted to concealing the value of campaign contributions that he and others made to state and local officials by soliciting straw donors. In his plea agreement, he also admitted to providing a stream of other gifts, including airline tickets, rounds of golf and sexual services to members of the county’s executive and legislative branch and the Board of Education. In exchange, his company received approval on their proposed development project, Greenbelt Station.
A sentencing date has not been set for the three men.
Jack Johnson’s plea agreement also shed further light on the ties between his arrest in November and the arrest of liquor store owner Amrik Singh Melhi.
According to the document, Mr. Melhi asked Jack Johnson in January 2010 to amend legislation that would allow county liquor stores to stay open until 3 a.m. Johnson said he would assist with the liquor legislation if Mr. Melhi provided funding for Leslie Johnson’s campaign.
As Johnson’s term as county executive wound to a close and his wife was successfully elected to the County Council on Nov. 2, Johnson seemed to begin positioning her as the power broker that developers would now have to deal with, according to portions of federal wiretaps included in his plea agreement.
In a recorded phone conversation with Baig a few days after the election, Johnson said, “Leslie is going to take, ah, chair of the zoning, ah, panel. So I told her to, ah, stay there about three years because, because everybody needs zoning. … You’ve got a good County Council and they’ll look out for you. I’ll have Leslie to, ah, take care of things for you.”
After the pair was arrested at their Mitchellville home Nov. 12, the County Council voted to strip Mrs. Johnson of some of her power on the council, including the ability to vote on development matters.
Mrs. Johnson faces evidence-tampering charges after authorities say she destroyed a $100,000 check written to Johnson from Baig. After federal agents confronted Johnson, on Nov. 12, he called his wife and was heard on federal wiretaps instructing her to flush the check down the toilet and to stash $79,600 in cash in her bra.
Federal agents searched the house, found the money on Mrs. Johnson and arrested the pair shortly afterward.
A plea hearing was scheduled earlier this month for Mrs. Johnson but it was postponed and no future court date has been set. If she pleads guilty to or is convicted of a felony offense, she will lose her seat on the council.
Mrs. Johnson did not accompany her husband to court Tuesday, but rather attended the regular Tuesday meeting of the Prince George’s County Council.
Johnson’s plea agreement Tuesday will have no effect on the case against Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Rosenstein said.
He said the investigation continues and additional charges are possible.