Former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson was sentenced Tuesday to more than seven years in federal prison after admitting to a wide-ranging pattern of corruption that permeated virtually every level of county government from health to housing and law enforcement to liquor laws.
Johnson, a 62-year-old Democrat, was arrested on extortion, bribery and evidence tampering charges in November 2010 while serving out the final weeks of his eight years as the leader of Maryland's second-most populous county.
Charged along with him was his wife, Leslie Johnson, who was found with $79,600 in bribe money stuffed in her bra and underwear after having destroyed a $100,000 bribe check as FBI agents closed in on her husband. Both pleaded guilty this year.
Jack Johnson's sentencing Tuesday was held in a packed courtroom in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the benches of which were filled with longtime supporters who held out hope he would be spared a prison term.
Instead, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte handed down a sentence of seven years and three months, the stiffest sentence in a Maryland corruption case in recent decades. It surpassed the seven-year sentence that former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell received in 2007 in an extortion scheme.
By contrast, two other recent Maryland political figures did not serve time after convictions. Baltimore County Councilman Kenneth Oliver received probation and a fine after admitting to two charges of stealing campaign funds in 2009. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon stepped down from office but avoided jail time after pleading guilty in 2010 to theft of gift cards intended for the poor.
Johnson's crimes were on a far different scale. Prosecutors said the former county executive, among other things, steered millions of dollars in government funds to developers in exchange for bribes, helped rig liquor store hours in favor of an owner who provided payoffs, arranged a hospital position for a poorly qualified physician, protected a crooked cop from disciplinary action and steered business to favored contractors.
"This was not a single act of bribery," the judge said. "This was not a mistake, this was not a simple wrong turn." What Johnson did, Messitte said, was put the county on a path to being a "kleptocracy."
Messitte's decision came after Johnson made a rambling plea for mercy during which he apologized to the people of Prince George's County and his family — particularly his wife — for his actions.
"In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined being in a place like this. I worked so hard for the people of this county and I delivered so much," he said in a low voice. "Judge, I've lost everything — my reputation, all the things I've worked for."
Prosecutors insisted that a tough sentence was needed to deter political corruption.
"The message must be sent that if you engage in the pay-to-play culture, you will not escape the scrutiny of law enforcement, and you will go to jail," said Assistant U.S Attorney James Crowell III.
The judge's sentence followed the federal prosecutors' sentence recommendation, which took into account Johnson's cooperation and guilty plea after his arrest.
Johnson and his attorneys had no comment as they left the courthouse after sentencing. The former county executive was allowed to remain free but given a Feb. 3 date to report to federal prison.
The sentencing brings a bitter end to the political career of a two-term county executive and former state's attorney for Prince George's.
Prosecutors said Johnson's "venality adversely affected everyone who lived, worked and tried to do business in Prince George's County" during his eight-year tenure from 2002 to 2010.
"Jack Johnson criminally and shamelessly flouted the public trust and abused his lawful authority," prosecutors said. They estimated that he received between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes while serving as county executive in exchange for favors worth more than $10 million to their recipients.
The judge rejected defense lawyers' plea that Johnson receive further leniency in consideration of his age, family ties and a recent diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. Neither was he moved by the defense argument that Johnson deserved credit for the good things he accomplished while in office.
"You are supposed to do public works," Messitte told the defendant. "You were not elected to line your pockets with additional money."
Leslie Johnson, who pleaded guilty to evidence-tampering, is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.