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Michigan Democrat resigns after criminal theft conviction
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A Democrat state senator resigned from office just hours after admitting to stealing from taxpayers.
Former Michigan State Sen. Bert Johnson pleaded guilty to stealing money from taxpayers Friday before tendering his resignation with a one-sentence statement.
The disgraced former lawmaker allegedly hired a “ghost employee” to do no work in exchange for more than $23,000 in taxpayer dollars. Johnson arranged the scheme to pay back thousands of dollars he owed to the fake employee.
He faces up to a year in prison.
Democrat resigns following guilty plea
Johnson pleaded guilty Friday to federal theft and conspiracy before resigning from the state senate and issuing a one-sentence statement.
“It is with profound regret that I tender my resignation, effective March 2, 2018,” he said.
The lawmaker allegedly hired a “ghost employee” who was paid to do no work in a scheme to resolve Johnson’s financial woes, which included his son’s college tuition, his own college payments, and debts to political consultants. Johnson made the arrangement to pay back $14,000 in loans he owed to the employee, Glynis Thornton, using taxpayer money.
According to prosecutors, Thornton earned $23,000 in taxpayer dollars between March 2014 and January 2015 for doing no work. Thornton, who is cooperating with law enforcement, secretly recorded a conversation with Johnson in November of 2015.
Investigators won Thornton’s co-operation after she was caught in a separate corruption case involving bribes to school principals. Johnson hired Thornton for the fake job in 2014 after borrowing $10,000 from her that he couldn’t repay.
An abrupt reversal
Jonhson’s guilty plea was a reversal from earlier this week, when he rejected a similar deal and appeared ready to face trial in a couple of weeks. He changed his mind on Thursday before pleading guilty Friday.
“Public officials, especially those elected by the people, cannot treat the people’s money as their own,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement. “The defendant in this case treated taxpayer money as his own, to repay his personal debt. Such an egregious abuse of power will not be tolerated.”
The plea deal means he will not stand trial March 12 and will have a second 10-year theft charge dropped. Johnson, who was convicted of armed robbery as a teenager before turning his life around and winning public office, now faces up to a year in prison over conspiring to steal money from the taxpayers.
Breach of trust
The state will now look to fill the vacancy left by Johnson’s departure.
“I have received his letter of resignation. I am asking Gov. Snyder to immediately call a special election to fill this seat, with the new senator being sworn in no later than August,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said in a statement.
It is unlikely Johnson will serve again. Michigan state law bars lawmakers convicted of felonies involving “dishonesty, deceit fraud or a breach of the public trust” from serving in state or local offices for twenty years.
Johnson will be sentenced August 7. He has agreed to pay back $23, 133.89 to the state of Michigan.
This is disgraceful. Lawmakers should never betray the trust of taxpayers, let alone steal from them.
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