WASHINGTON — Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson engaged in a wide-ranging pay-for-play scheme, accepting cash, campaign contributions and other gifts in exchange for helping developers secure millions of dollars in federal grant money, according to an indictment returned by a grand jury on Monday.
Johnson, 61, was arrested in November along with his wife, Leslie Johnson, after FBI agents listened to a telephone conversation in which he advised her to flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet and conceal nearly $80,000 in cash in her underwear.
Johnson, a Democrat, served as county executive in Prince George’s from 2002 to last year. His wife was elected to the County Council shortly before her arrest and was sworn in despite calls from several council members that she step aside.
The eight-count indictment charges Jack Johnson with extortion, bribery, witness and evidence tampering and conspiracy. He faces decades in prison if convicted on all counts. His attorney, Billy Martin, did not return messages seeking comment.
The indictment details a series of cash payments to Jack Johnson and James Johnson, the county’s former housing director, by two developers who in turn received federal grant money for their projects. Jack and James Johnson are not related.
The indictment also names Amrik Melhi, who owns several liquor stores in the county, as a Johnson conspirator. Melhi and his wife, Ravinder, have been charged in a scheme to sell untaxed alcohol and cigarettes, and federal prosecutors said their arrests were related to the investigation of Jack Johnson.
According to the indictment, Johnson called Melhi to solicit campaign contributions for his wife and conspired with him to violate campaign finance laws.
A final conspirator, according to the indictment, was a candidate for public office identified as Candidate A. Johnson pledged that the candidate would receive “a huge amount of money” from Melhi, other liquor dealers and Developer A, the indictment says.
The indictment includes a more detailed transcript of the telephone conversation between Jack and Leslie Johnson on the day of their arrests. As FBI agents knocked repeatedly on the door of the couple’s Mitchellville home, Jack Johnson instructed his wife to destroy the check and hide large sums of cash in her bra and underpants, as Leslie Johnson repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh my God,” according to the indictment.
Leslie Johnson faces charges of witness and evidence tampering but has not been indicted. A preliminary hearing in her case was pushed back to March 16 at the request of the defense. Her attorney did not return a message seeking comment.
The level of detail in the indictment suggests the government has a strong case and may be pushing for a plea agreement, said Steven H. Levin, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Maryland now in private practice.
Johnson’s successor, County Executive Rushern Baker, who was elected on an anti-corruption platform, declined through a spokesman to comment on the allegations.
“The Baker administration is open and fully willing to cooperate with all authorities investigating any alleged wrongdoing within Prince George’s County government,” said the spokesman, Scott Peterson.
Donald Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the allegations against Johnson were shocking even in a county long plagued by corruption.
“There have been all kinds of issues in Prince George’s County, but nothing I can recall even remotely resembling what is alleged to be the case with Jack Johnson,” he said.
Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco in Annapolis contributed to this report.