By ERIC TUCKER
GREENBELT, Md. – The former executive of a large Maryland county outside Washington, D.C., was sentenced Tuesday to more than seven years in prison for collecting more than $1 million in bribes and gifts during a tenure that prosecutors say was rife with greed, corruption and an unchecked pay-to-play culture.
The investigation into Jack Johnson, who led Prince George’s County from 2002 to 2010, was revealed to the public more than a year ago. Federal authorities tapping his phone heard him directing his wife to flush down the toilet an illicit $100,000 check from a developer and to stuff nearly $80,000 in cash in her undergarments. FBI agents had arrived at the couple’s home after witnessing Jack Johnson receive $15,000 from a developer.
Since the Johnsons’ arrests in November 2010, prosecutors have revealed a sweeping investigation that has touched varied corners of county life and led to charges against his wife, a former county councilwoman, as well as police officers, liquor store owners, developers and county officials. Leslie Johnson is to be sentenced later this week.
"If Jack Johnson’s story were a Hollywood screenplay," U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said after the hearing, "critics would say it’s too bizarre to be true."
The conviction marked a precipitous fall for Johnson, who put himself through college before becoming the county’s top prosecutor and ultimately its powerful executive. Johnson, 62, said he was "haunted" by his actions and had ruined his reputation and the faith his former constituents in Prince George’s — the nation’s most affluent majority-black county — had placed in him.
He asked for mercy based on his overall record and what he said was his rapidly declining health. One of his lawyers said that Johnson, who walked with a cane Tuesday, had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was rapidly degenerating, but prosecutors say medical reports show only that his symptoms might eventually develop into Parkinson’s.
Prosecutors also argued there is reported alcoholism that may be causing Johnson to experience tremors. They said Johnson was playing golf, running and going on long bike rides despite the Parkinson’s disease claim. The judge refused to take Johnson’s health into account.
"In my wildest dreams, I could not imagine being in a place like this. I worked so hard for the people of this county and I achieved so much," said Johnson, who was escorted by his lawyers and supporters after the hearing into a waiting Chevy Suburban.
The charges against him arose from a sweeping probe that revealed rampant corruption and a pervasive pay-to-play culture in the county of 860,000 residents.
Prosecutors said his schemes were numerous and varied, including steering millions of dollars in federal and local funds to certain developers in exchange for bribes; working to secure a job at the county hospital for an unqualified doctor at the behest of a developer who paid him bribes; and providing a series of favors, including favorable zoning changes and help with critical legislation, to a liquor store owner who bribed him regularly and agreed to contribute to his wife’s campaign for county council.
"This defendant used anything and everything within his power to line his pockets," prosecutor James Crowell said.
U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte credited Johnson for his cooperation with authorities — prosecutors would not detail the help he had offered — but not for the good work he and his lawyers say he performed during his tenure.
"If you’ve done them, good for you," Messitte said. "That’s what you were elected to do. You were not elected to line your pockets, you were not elected to corrupt the system the way you did."
Johnson could have faced 14 years in prison under sentencing guidelines.
Johnson’s successor, Rushern Baker III, who took office one year ago Tuesday, said the past year was difficult for the county but that he’s tried to restore faith and confidence.
"Yes, we are moving forward, but I will not tolerate any person or entity slowing down our march to greatness," Baker said in a statement.
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)