Ex-House Speaker Rick Johnson sentenced to 55 months in federal prison for taking bribes

This story was reprinted with permission from Crain’s Detroit and written by David Eggert.

Former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson was sentenced to 55 months in federal prison Thursday for taking at least $110,200 worth of bribes, including lobbyist-funded sex with a prostitute, while he chaired the state’s nascent medical marijuana licensing board.

Johnson, 70, of LeRoy, Michigan, helped the bribe payers — a Detroit-area businessman and two Lansing-based lobbyists — by assisting their companies and clients through the process, providing confidential information about the five-member board’s work and that of other applicants, and ultimately voting to approve the applications. In return, he accepted no fewer than 38 cash payments between June 2017 and February 2019, a $20,000 “loan,” $2,000 worth of sex with a woman in the adult entertainment industry and two trips on private jets to meet with Canadian investors in a company seeking licensure. The flights were valued at $8,200.

U.S. District Judge Jane Beckering sentenced Johnson in Grand Rapids, two weeks after she sentenced 71-year-old John Dawood Dalaly of West Bloomfield to 28 months. Johnson, Dalaly and lobbyists Vincent Brown of Royal Oak and Brian Pierce of Midland pleaded guilty in April and agreed to cooperate as part of deals. That suggested more people could be charged, though no one else has been to date.

Johnson “corrupted the process for the state’s issuance of licenses for businesses to operate in a new and lucrative industry,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing this month in which they asked for a sentence of at least six years and a $110,200 fine.

“Those who were denied a license by the (Medical Marijuana Licensing Board) now may wonder whether they had a fair and equal opportunity to compete in the industry. Law-abiding qualified applicants who did not have the ultimate insider ‘on the take’ may have struggled with understanding and navigating what became a tedious and lengthy application and approval process,” assistant U.S. attorneys Christopher O’Connor and Clay Stiffler wrote. “At the very least, although the government has no evidence that Johnson’s receipt of bribe payments prevented other qualified applicants from ultimately obtain licenses, Johnson’s crime has significantly damaged the trust that law-abiding citizens placed in his work as MMLB Chair and in state government.”

Johnson’s lawyer, Nicholas Dondzila, had recommended leniency, urging the judge to take into account factors such as his “substantial and material assistance” to investigators, others’ support for him, his public service and lack of a prior criminal history.

Johnson, a Republican, was House speaker from 2001 through 2004 before being term-limited. He was a partner in a multi-client firm in Lansing with Democratic former House Speaker Lou Dodak — Dodak Johnson & Associates — and was named to the newly created licensing board in 2017 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder after dropping his lobbying registration.

The appointment was controversial because Johnson had worked on the legislation to regulate medical marijuana but claimed he had no paying clients. He also had been negotiating the sale of his stake in the firm to Pierce, a marijuana industry lobbyist who had worked on the bills as a legislative staffer, before later selling it to Dodak, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Pierce and Brown will be sentenced Oct. 18.

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