- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday released a secretly recorded video showing former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson casually accepting a cash bribe on the day he was arrested in connection with a wide-ranging corruption probe.

The video was made public in conjunction with a sentencing memo filed by prosecutors, who say Johnson should serve 14 years in prison for accepting up to $1 million in bribes during his two terms at the helm of the county. Although the bribe has been documented in court papers, the video of Johnson offers a candid firsthand look at the exchange that formed the basis of Johnson’s guilty pleas.

At one point in the nearly 20 minutes of footage recorded Nov. 12, 2010, Johnson remarked that his time as county executive was drawing to a close and he said he was tiring of the scrutiny that came with the office.

“You’ve got a lot of political enemies and they call the various prosecutors,” he said. “Prosecutors always like to try to, especially minorities, they like to try to put them in jail.”

“If one of the prosecutors were able to bring somebody like me down they’d brag their whole career. ‘I prosecuted Jack Johnson,’” he said, pausing to chuckle.

Yet less than 15 minutes later in the video, Johnson is seen accepting a tightly rolled wad of cash passed to him by a county developer who was cooperating with investigators. Johnson, seated in the developer’s office and wearing the same clothes in which he would later be arrested, thumbed through the cash before getting up to leave.

It was then, according to prosecutors, that federal agents confronted Johnson about the $15,000 he was carrying.

Authorities say the bribe was paid by Mirza Baig, a developer who had previously asked Johnson to secure a position at Prince George’s Hospital Center for a female associate and who has since pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the case.

In exchange for other bribes, Baig received the county executive’s assistance on several development projects, including $1.7 million in federal block grants to pay for the renovations of 11 homes to be rented to low-income residents.

Johnson, 62, pleaded guilty in May to charges of extortion and witness and evidence tampering, and is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in Greenbelt on Dec. 6.

Prosecutors say he solicited between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes during his time as county executive, from 2002 until 2010, and that he used his influence to peddle favors to those supportive of his political campaigns and those of his wife, a former County Council member.

Johnson’s attorney, William Martin, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. After pleading guilty in May, Johnson offered a brief apology.

Meanwhile his wife, Leslie E. Johnson, who also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit witness tampering and one count of evidence tampering, is scheduled for sentencing three days after her husband.

She admitted to flushing a $100,000 check down a toilet and hiding tens of thousands of dollars of bribe money in her bra as federal investigators tried to execute a search warrant at the couple’s Mitchellville home in the minutes after the events depicted in the video.

Excerpts of other wiretapped conversations detailed in court papers have shown Jack Johnson was grooming his wife to continue the pay-to-play environment he had fostered among developers and business people. She was elected to the council Nov. 2, 2010.

However, details from the sentencing memo and the video show how quickly Jack Johnson aimed to make that transition happen.

Regarding a proposed lease of Baig’s property to the county, Johnson said legislation regarding the lease could be attached to other legislation so that it would quickly be approved.

“What we’re doing is that we’re attaching it to one of the, um, water-sewer bills. So it comes up before the full council immediately and I’ll get, um. … And with the group that Leslie has, you get, it will slide right on through,” Jack Johnson says on the Nov. 12 video, implying that his wife already had influence over other council members.

At various times throughout his last few months in office, Jack Johnson exhibited signs of paranoia about being watched by investigators, particularly as he lined up job opportunities for himself.

In 2010, Johnson began meeting with an official at the Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly to work out a deal in which he could be hired on as a consultant after he left office for $15,000 a month, according to the sentencing memo.

“After discussing various plans that had been reduced to writing, the Hospital official offered to email the information to Jack Johnson, who responded, ‘You know, um it’s, it’s a county email. I guess you, you didn’t, you don’t want to do it on the county email,’” the sentencing memo states.

A few days later, when the unnamed hospital official tries to arrange a dinner in order to discuss details of the contract, Johnson suggests they meet in the District rather than in Prince George’s County to lessen the chances they will be recognized together.

Months later, Johnson offers the hospital official advice.

“Just keep your mouth shut. I’ve learned in this game. … If you want to mess up something, talk about it. That’s all I can say,” he’s quoted as saying in the prosecutor’s sentencing memo.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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