Ex-Speaker Johnson pleads guilty in medical marijuana bribery probe

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Former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in a Grand Rapids courtroom Tuesday, as the judicial fallout from a medical marijuana bribery scandal in the state continues to unfold.

Johnson, 70, was the chairman of the state’s medical marijuana licensing board, which approved or denied applications from medical marijuana businesses, from 2017-19. He is charged with accepting $110,200 in cash and benefits during his time as chair.

“The intent was to influence you or reward you for decisions you made,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Phillip Green said of the bribes as he read sections of Johnson’s plea agreement with prosecutors.

He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. Johnson, along with three other men charged in the probe, has agreed to fully cooperate with government prosecutors. As part of his plea agreement, prosecutors have agreed not to oppose any motion from Johnson to request a two-level sentence reduction. Additionally, prosecutors have agreed to consider making their own motion to reduce Johnson’s sentence guidelines due to his cooperation.

Also as part of his plea agreement, Johnson will forfeit $110,200, the amount of the bribes he received, to the government.

Johnson was placed on an unsecured, unsupervised bond of $25,000. This means he only has to pay the bond if he violates his bond conditions, which limit his travel to the state of Michigan and requires him to surrender his passport and any guns he may have to the court. He also is forbidden from contacting the others charged in the case.

Johnson’s sentencing will be later this year in front of U.S. District Judge Jane Beckering. Johnson and his attorney, Nicholas Dondzila, refused to answer questions from reporters as they left the courthouse Tuesday morning.

More: Ex-Michigan House speaker’s wife implicated in medical marijuana bribery scheme

More: Ex-Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson, others charged in medical marijuana bribery scheme

Mark Totten, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said the investigation remains ongoing.

“What I can say is that the investigation and the prosecution of public corruption is a priority for our office,” he said following the hearing. “We will follow it wherever we find it. And when we do find it, we will take the actions necessary to give Michiganders the accountability that they deserve.”

Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, is the second individual charged in the scandal to plead guilty — last week, businessman John Dalaly pleaded guilty to a charge of payment of bribes. Dalaly paid Johnson $68,200 in cash and benefits, like private flights, to influence Johnson to approve a license for his medical marijuana dispensary.

During his plea hearing, Dalaly said he also paid $4,000 in monthly consulting fees to Johnson’s wife, Janice Johnson, while her husband chaired the licensing board. The payments were Rick Johnson’s idea, Dalaly said. Janice Johnson has not been charged or named in the corruption probe.

As part of Johnson’s plea agreement, federal prosecutors have agreed not to charge Janice Johnson in the corruption probe.

Dalaly’s sentencing date is set for Sept. 14.

Two former lobbyists, Vincent Brown, 32, and Brian Pierce, 45, also are charged with conspiracy to commit bribery. Their plea hearings are set for Thursday and Friday, respectively.

Details of the investigation first became public in February when, as a result of a lawsuit over unpaid legal bills, records showed that federal investigators were interested in a nonprofit Johnson headed called Michigan’s Promise. The existence of the investigation was first reported by The Detroit News.

Johnson was House speaker from 2001-04. He came under scrutiny from the Free Press in 2017 when former Gov. Rick Snyder named Johnson, who was a registered lobbyist from 2005 until 2016, to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Licensing Board.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dismantled the board via executive order in 2019, shortly after recreational marijuana was legalized in Michigan by voters in 2018.

Contact Arpan Lobo: alobo@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @arpanlobo.

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