A tapped telephone conversation between Johnson and his wife appears to be the most damning evidence against them in the federal government’s charges that they destroyed evidence in an ongoing investigation, several defense attorneys said.
The challenge will be to show that those tapes — in which Johnson appears to tell his wife to destroy a developer’s check and hide cash — do not reveal criminal intent, the attorneys say.
“In these high-profile political prosecutions, the defendant who tampers with evidence or otherwise commits acts that are charged as obstruction of justice has a very difficult time defending against those charges,” said Arnold M. Weiner, of the Law Offices of Arnold M. Weiner in Baltimore.
“If the press reports are to be believed, the county executive’s telephone call to his wife sounds like the same kind of conduct that has gotten … other defendants into serious trouble,” said Weiner, who defended former Mayor Sheila Dixon, former Gov. Marvin Mandel and former U.S. Rep. Edward Garmatz against corruption charges
The Johnsons were charged Friday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt with witness- and evidence-tampering in a federal investigation.
Prosecutors say Leslie Johnson called her husband Friday on his tapped phone to tell him two women were knocking on their door. Johnson allegedly told her not to answer but to find a check from a certain developer and “tear it up,” then to hide cash in her bra and walk out.
FBI agents entered the home, searched Leslie Johnson and found $79,600 in her bra, according to prosecutors.
“Cases like this turn on whether the defendants have a viable belief, an explanation, that the conduct in which they engaged in was lawful,” said attorney Steven A. Allen, of Hodes, Pessin & Katz PA in Towson. “What the defense will try to do, if there are recorded statements, is to take comments by the defendants and try to demonstrate that the defendants were engaged in what they believe was lawful conduct.”
Defense attorney Herbert Better cautioned the Johnsons’ attorneys to proceed cautiously in light of what else may be on the tapes.
“The temptation when representing a high-profile figure is to want to say something,” said Better, of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Baltimore.
“The better judgment is to wait until you hear what your client has said before you take a position,” he said. “Until you know what your client has said or not said, it is difficult to finalize any strategy about defending or resolving the case.”
The charges stem from an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving Jack Johnson and a development company trying to secure funds from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that provides money to build low-income housing.
If convicted, the Johnsons could each be sentenced up to 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release and face fines up to $250,000.
Jack Johnson, who was back at work on Monday, has turned to an attorney experienced in high-profile political cases to handle his defense.
William R. “Billy” Martin, of Howrey LLP in Washington, D.C., successfully defended former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell against charges of racketeering, bribery and fraud while in office.
Federal prosecutors alleged Campbell, who led Atlanta from 1994 to 2002, received $50,000 in cash from a strip-club operator who sought help getting a liquor license and $55,000 from a computer company seeking a city contract.
Campbell was convicted of tax evasion and served 26 months in a halfway house and one year on probation.
Johnson also is being defended by Brian K. McDaniel of the Law Office of Brian K. McDaniel and Associates in Washington, D.C.
McDaniel, of Beltsville, ran unsuccessfully this year for the Democratic nomination for Maryland state delegate in District 21, which includes Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
According to court documents, Leslie Johnson is represented by criminal defense attorney Roland N. Patterson Jr., of the Law Office of Patterson and Associates LLC in Owings Mills.
None of the three retained attorneys returned telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the case.
Asked what he would counsel the defense lawyers, veteran defender Timothy F. Maloney declined to weigh in, saying Martin is “very competent counsel. He doesn’t need my advice.”
In any event, “the challenge is not giving good advice,” said Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt. “The challenge is getting the client to take it.”
Representing Jack Johnson
* William R. “Billy” Martin
Howrey LLP, Washington, D.C.; also
admitted to federal bar in Md.
* Brian McDaniel
Law Office of Brian K. McDaniel and Associates, Washington, D.C.
Ran for House of Delegates, 2010; lost in primary
Representing Leslie Johnson
* Roland N. Patterson Jr.
Law Office of Patterson and Associates LLC, Owings Mills