Former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson pleaded guilty to two counts in his corruption case Tuesday.
Johnson shook hands with supporters as he entered U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., and looked calm and businesslike as he sat down at the defense table for his re-arraignment hearing. He pleaded guilty to extortion, a Hobbs Act violation for obtaining property or services because of his position, and witness and evidence tampering for persuading another to destroy evidence, NBC Washington's Chris Gordon reported. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, followed by supervised release. The court will set sentencing guidelines. Federal guidelines call for a range of 11-13 years, according to prosecutors.
The prosecution said the defense would argue for a lesser sentence due to Johnson's family ties and responsibilities, Gordon reported. The defense reserves the right to appeal the sentence when given.
As part of the plea, Johnson must forfeit all funds from illegal activities. As it is an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office and not the IRS, the plea does not resolve any tax liability, Gordon reported.
Any new offense would be a breach of the agreement. The plea agreement is merely a recommendation to the court.
Sentencing was set for Sept. 15.
“Electing and appointing men and women of good character is important, but the key to honest government is to create a culture of integrity by establishing checks and balances that promote accountability,” U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said. “People who seek government benefits or approvals deserve to be evaluated on the merits without being extorted or losing out to competitors who pay bribes.”
Outside the court, Johnson said it’s been a stressful time for his family.
"We just thought it would be better, and we’ve pled guilty and accepted responsibility," he said.
He said he won't comment on the facts of the case until proceedings are complete but will have a more complete statement after he appears before the judge again.
"I just want to say to the citizens of Promce George's County, I'm very sorry for what happened," Johnson said. "We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the lord."
Johnson could have faced decades in prison if convicted at trial of all charges -- extortion, bribery, conspiracy and witness and evidence tampering. He was indicted in February on all those charges and had pleaded not guilty.
Johnson, who served as county exevutive from 2002 to 2010, was arrested in November, with less than a month left in office.
The court also released records from three related cases. James Johnson (no relation), former director of the County Department of Housing and Community Development, which administered the HOME Investment Partnerships program, providing federal grants to states and localities for affordable housing, pleaded guilty Jan. 28 to conspiracy to commit extortion. Dr. Mirza Baig, president of Laurel Lakes Primary Care, LLC, and owner of a commercial and residential developer, pleaded guilty on April 11 to conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with paying bribes to Jack Johnson and James Johnson. Patrick Q. Ricker, a developer and licensed real estate broker, pleaded guilty on Dec. 30 to conspiring to commit honest services fraud and to make false statements to the Federal Election Commission, and to tax evasion.
Baig, Ricker and others offered money, trip expenses, meals, drinks, hotel rooms, airline tickets, rounds of golf, employment, mortgage payments, and campaign contributions to Jack Johnson, James Johnson and other state and local government officials, according to Jack Johnson’s plea. In exchange, Jack and James Johnson and other government officials secured millions in HOME funds, land from the county, and state and local permits and approvals for Baig, Ricker and other developers.
The pleas of Baig and James Johnson said they were a part of the conspiracy from 2006 through 2010. Ricker’s plea said he was part of it from about 1997 through at least Sept. 11, 2008. Jack Johnson was a part of it from 2003 through Nov. 12, according to his plea.
Baig paid Jack Johnson with $1,500 six times during a six-month period in 2005, according to Johnson’s plea. Baig paid him $50,000 for help getting a Baig associate a job as a physician at Prince George’s County Hospital, Johnson admitted. Johnson also admitted to taking a $100,000 check from Baig for help getting HOME funds for one project. Jack Johnson and James Johnson received between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes from Baig, according to their plea agreements.
Officials concealed Ricker’s gifts by failing to report them or misrepresenting them, according to Ricker’s plea agreement, and Ricker concealed campaign contributions above legal limits by reimbursing family and employees for making campaign contributions. Ricker also provided campaign signs, food, alcohol and services of employees and family.
Jack Johnson's wife, Leslie, a member of the county council, also faces charges in the case. She is accused of stuffing almost $80,000 in her bra and flushing a $100,000 check down the toilet at her husband’s request as authorities closed in, according to the indictment.
She was scheduled to enter a guilty plea on May 4, but that hearing was canceled. Jack Johnson solicited campaign contributions for his wife from Amrik Sigh Melhi, who owns several liquor stores, and conspired with him to violate campaign finance laws, the indictment said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said Jack Johnson's plea agreement has no affect on his wife's case.
Leslie Johnson was at work with the Prince George's County Council as her husband entered his plea, NBC Washington's John Schriffen reported. She voted in favor of a potential 2 percent raise for county government workers.
"I am voting to do the correct thing," she said, "and I will sleep well at night because I am doing the right thing and have no difficulty in doing so."
The raise, one of the last pieces of business put forward by Jack Johnson before he left office, was defeated.
County Councilman Will Campos called Jack Johnson's guilty plea a black eye for the county. He said he supports Leslie Johnson and will let her case play out. If convicted of a felony, Leslie Johnson will lose her seat on the council.
County Executive Rushern Baker said this is not a sad day for the county as it continues to move forward and address corruption concerns.
"I don't think any damage has been done to Prince George's County," Baker said. "What we've said since the day that I took office is that we're going to move this county forward. Individual actions in no way tarnishes the hard work that the employees of Prince George's County have been doing and are doing."
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