A former Maryland county executive pleaded guilty Tuesday to shaking down developers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other favors in exchange for doing business with the county, part of a wide-ranging public corruption probe that prosecutors said is far from over.
The plea came six months after former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson accepted $15,000 in cash from a developer and was immediately confronted by FBI agents. Shortly thereafter, agents tapping Johnson's cell phone listened as he called his wife while agents were at the door of their home and asked her to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and to stuff nearly $80,000 in cash in her underwear. He and his wife were then arrested and the cash was recovered.
"I want to say to all the citizens of our county that I'm very sorry for what happened," Johnson, dressed in a dark suit and striped tie, said outside court. "We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the Lord."
Johnson, a Democrat, led the Washington suburb of more than 860,000 residents from 2002 through 2010. He's now likely to face an even longer stint in prison. Federal sentencing guidelines call for him to receive between 11 and 13 years, although U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte is not required to sentence him within that range. Johnson pleaded guilty to one count each of extortion and evidence and witness tampering, and prosecutors agreed to drop six other counts, including bribery.
Sentencing was set for Sept. 15. Johnson, 62, remains free on supervised release.
His wife, Leslie Johnson, was elected to the County Council shortly before her November arrest and was sworn in despite calls from several council members that she step aside. She was scheduled to enter a guilty plea earlier this month, but the hearing was abruptly canceled.
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said prosecutors are treating the cases separately and that Jack Johnson's guilty plea has no bearing on any agreement Leslie Johnson might reach. She is charged with witness and evidence tampering, and any felony conviction would force her to give up her council seat.
Rosenstein and other law enforcement officials said their probe into corruption in Prince George's remained active and that investigators were looking at potential wrongdoing by other public officials and candidates for office. Prince George's is the nation's wealthiest majority-black county but has long been plagued by crime, failing schools and corruption scandals.
"Today's guilty plea represents a milestone in this investigation, not a goal line," Rosenstein said.
No matter what mitigating factors Johnson presents at his sentencing, the plea agreement shows he was accepting bribes and breaking the law during almost his entire tenure as county executive and fostering "a pay to play culture," Rosenstein said.
"Jack Johnson cheated the citizens of Prince George's County with crooked deals, sealed with whispered conversations, quick handshakes and under-the-table money," said Leo Taddeo, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office.
Johnson's successor, County Executive Rushern Baker, said in a statement that Johnson's conviction was a reminder of his responsibility to restore integrity to county government.
"The news about the former county executive is by no means reflective of the people of Prince George's County or employees of its government," Baker said. "By now you all should have observed we have made appropriate moves to improve our processes. We will aim high."