GREENBELT — Prince George’s County Councilwoman Leslie E. Johnson pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy to commit evidence and witness tampering related to money her husband, then-county executive Jack B. Johnson, received from developers in exchange for helping them secure federal grant funds.
The felony conviction means Leslie Johnson, 59, will no longer be a qualified voter under Maryland law when she is sentenced on Oct. 13, at which point she cannot serve as a council member under the county charter, said council chair Ingrid M. Turner in a statement.
But Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, in a statement, called on Leslie Johnson to resign immediately because “the process of healing should not be delayed or deferred” for the county’s residents.
Johnson did not comment on her future on the council during brief remarks to reporters after her plea.
“There is nothing I can do or say to make this day any less difficult,” she said. “I only ask not to be defined by this mistake.”
Johnson, who was elected to the council just 10 days before her arrest on Nov. 12, faces up to 18 months in prison under the plea agreement.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte, who accepted Johnson’s plea, is not bound by the agreement. He has discretion to sentence her to up to 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release, and may fine Johnson up to $250,000.
However, Johnson has retained under the agreement the right to appeal any sentence that exceeds 18 months.
Jack Johnson, 62, who pleaded guilty to extortion as well as to witness and evidence tampering on May 17, is scheduled to be sentenced by Messitte on Sept. 15. He faces a sentence of up to 13 years under his plea agreement.
Cash stashed in intimates
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 and underwear during a search pursuant to a warrant issued for the couple’s home in Mitchellville. That money, which is in the FBI’s possession, will be forfeited to the federal government under the plea agreement.
Jack 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 the same day.
After Leslie Johnson’s plea, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein declined to state explicitly whether he believes she knew the full scope of what he called “Jack Johnson’s corruption scheme.”
But Rosenstein did cite an FBI wiretap of the telephone call between the Johnsons, in which she asked her husband — without prompting — if she should conceal the cash stored in the couple’s bedroom and basement. Rosenstein, again citing the wiretap, said it was Leslie Johnson who suggested she flush the check down the toilet, rather than tear it up, as Jack Johnson advised over the phone.
She then flushed the check.
“There is evidence, at some level, that she had knowledge of the larger scheme,” Rosenstein told reporters.
Turner, the council chair, said Leslie Johnson’s guilty plea marked “a difficult day.”
After Johnson resigns or is sentenced, the council will call for a special election to fill the vacancy, as provided for under the county charter, Turner added.
Former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who served during part of the federal investigation of the Johnsons, said it “made sense” for the U.S. attorney to handle the probe without involving state or county investigators.
In cases of potential political corruption, the possibility of a leak is “dramatically increased” when federal agents inform local agencies of the investigation, Ivey said. The local agencies often must continue to work closely with the person under investigation, making continued confidentiality difficult, he explained.
Ivey added he did not and would not have “turned a blind eye” to the Johnsons’ corruption.
“It’s been a tough stretch for the county,” said Ivey, now a partner at Venable LLP in Washington, D.C. “Hopefully, the guilty pleas will mend some of those wounds and allow the county to move forward.”
But Rosenstein described as “ongoing” the federal investigation of potential corruption in the county that was spurred by the Johnsons’ actions.
“We’re going to follow that evidence wherever it leads,” Rosenstein said, without elaboration.