GREENBELT — Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of extortion and one count of tampering related to money he received from developers in exchange for helping them secure federal grants and approvals.
As part of the plea agreement in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, federal prosecutors said they would not pursue bribery and conspiracy charges for which Johnson was also indicted. The prosecution also pledged to pursue a lighter sentence than the 20-year prison term and $250,000 fine permitted under federal sentencing guidelines for both extortion and witness or evidence tampering.
Senior Judge Peter J. Messitte, who accepted Johnson’s plea, is scheduled to sentence him on Sept. 15.
Johnson said little but shook hands or hugged some of his supporters on his way into the crowded ceremonial courtroom. After the one-hour session, he told reporters he was “very sorry for what happened.”
“We have all sinned,” said Johnson, who remains free pending his sentencing. “This has been a very, very trying time for my family and me.”
Johnson’s wife, Prince George’s County Councilwoman Leslie E. Johnson, faces a separate trial on evidence-tampering charges for her alleged role in trying to help Johnson get rid of or conceal nearly $180,000 in ill-gotten gains.
The corruption case against the Johnsons attracted national attention when federal investigators on Nov. 12 found $79,600 in cash hidden in Leslie Johnson’s bra during a search pursuant to a warrant issued for the couple’s home in Mitchellville.
Johnson, who had been stopped earlier that day by federal agents after accepting $15,000 from a developer, called his wife and told her to hide the cash and destroy a $100,000 check from the developer.
The Johnsons were arrested that day.
Jack Johnson on Tuesday acknowledged instructing his wife to destroy the check and hide the money, which Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell IV referred to as having been “secreted on her person.”
Defense attorney William R. “Billy” Martin said he will spend much of the next six months preparing his argument that Johnson, 62, should face only limited prison time and a fine due to his years of proud public service, age, health and family obligations.
“Mr. Johnson accepted responsibility for what he has done,” Martin told reporters after the plea. Messitte “will sentence him for both the crime and the person that he is.”
Tips, taps and conspirators
Johnson, who led Prince George’s from 2002 to 2010, served as the county’s state’s attorney from 1994 to 2002.
Federal prosecutors said they built their case against Johnson through tips and “thousands” of telephone wiretaps documenting more than $400,000 in cash and gift payments to the former county executive since 2003. In return, Johnson exploited the power and influence of his office to secure approval of federal grant money and development projects and to get a job for a friend of one of the illicit donors, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also had in hand three guilty pleas by Johnson’s alleged conspirators, one dating back to December 2009 and two from this year. All three pleas were sealed by court order and unsealed only after Johnson’s guilty pleas were accepted.
Developer Mirza Baig pleaded guilty April 11 to conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with bribes to Johnson.
Under the plea agreement, Johnson admitted that Baig, of Prince George’s County, paid $100,000 in exchange for help getting federal grant money though the federal HOME Investment Partnerships Program.
In addition, Johnson admitted that Baig paid him $9,000 in cash for helping the developer win approval for several building projects. Johnson also acknowledged receipt of $50,000 from Baig to help a physician associate of Baig’s get a job at Prince George’s County Hospital.
Also unsealed Tuesday was a guilty plea by James E. Johnson, whom Jack Johnson had appointed to administer the HOME program in Prince George’s.
James Johnson, no relation to Jack Johnson, directed the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development and administered the HOME program, which provides federal grants to counties to fund the construction, purchase or rehabilitation of affordable housing.
James Johnson pleaded guilty Jan. 28 to conspiracy to commit extortion.
Prince George’s County developer Patrick Q. Ricker pleaded guilty Dec. 30, 2009, to conspiring to commit honest services fraud, tax evasion and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission.
Ricker had an interest in Greenbelt Metropark, which wanted to design and build a mixed-use project near the Greenbelt Metro Station, and in Day Homes, which sought to build single-family homes in Prince George’s County, federal prosecutors said.
Baig is scheduled to be sentenced July 14. No sentencing dates have been scheduled for James Johnson and Ricker.
“Electing and appointing men and women of good character is important,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “But the key to honest government is to create a culture of integrity by establishing checks and balances that promote accountability.”
Those who seek government benefits or approvals “deserve to be evaluated on the merits, without being extorted or losing out to competitors who pay bribes,” Rosenstein said.
Martin, Johnson’s attorney, of Dorsey & Whitney LLP in Washington, D.C., defended former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell in 2006. Campbell was acquitted of racketeering, bribery and fraud charges but was convicted of tax evasion and served 26 months in prison.