GREENBELT, Md. (AP/WJZ) — Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, accused in a widespread probe into pay-to-play business dealings, pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of extortion and witness and evidence tampering.

Andrea Fujii reports the plea comes six months after Johnson was overheard in a telephone conversation recorded by the FBI directing his wife to flush down the toilet a $100,000 check from a developer and to conceal nearly $80,000 in cash in her underwear.

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Johnson, a Democrat who led the county of more than 860,000 people from 2002 to 2010, was arrested with less than a month left in his term.

“The public has the right to know that those who work for them are doing so honestly.  The victims in these crimes today are the taxpaying public,” said Rebecca Sparkman, IRS.

Johnson was indicted in February on charges that he accepted more than $200,000 in campaign contributions and other gifts in exchange for helping developers secure millions of dollars in federal grant money. Johnson and his lawyer, Billy Martin, had initially vowed to fight the accusations.

A judge had a question for Johnson Tuesday:

“Are you pleading guilty because you are and for no other reason?”

Johnson answered, “Yes, your honor.”

Johnson could have faced decades in prison if convicted at trial of all charges — extortion, bribery, conspiracy and witness and evidence tampering.  The range of his sentencing now could be 11-13 years.

He apologized Tuesday.

“I made a mistake,” Johnson said. “I’m sorry to the people of Prince George’s County and I accept responsibility.”

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein called the case “a milestone case that exposed corruption.”   He says “the key to honest government is to maintain a culture of integrity.” 

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Leslie Johnson was elected to the County Council shortly before her 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. Any felony conviction would force her to give up her office. It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, a resolution to Jack Johnson’s case would have on his wife’s case or her political career.

“This has been a very, very trying time for my family and I,” Johnson said.  “We all sin and fall short of the glory of the Lord.”

After Johnson entered his plea, prosecutors unsealed three related plea agreements, some of which shed new light on Johnson’s case.

Mirza Hussain Baig, a Laurel physician and real estate developer, pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy to commit extortion. Baig, previously identified in Johnson court documents as “Developer A,” was the source of the $15,000 cash payment and the $100,000 check, among numerous other payments and favors.

James B. Johnson, the county’s former director of housing and community development who is not related to Jack Johnson, pleaded guilty in January to extortion conspiracy. Jack and James Johnson conspired to secure millions of dollars in federal grant money for developers who paid them bribes, according to their pleas.

The probe also snared developer Patrick Ricker of Bowie, who pleaded guilty in December 2009 to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and to make false statements to the Federal Election Commission, and to tax evasion. Ricker is the developer of a major mixed-use project in Greenbelt.

According to his guilty plea, Ricker and unnamed co-conspirators showered public officials with gifts including cash, travel, rounds of golf and sexual services in exchange for actions favorable to their projects. Ricker also admitted that he used straw donors to make illegal campaign contributions.

Prosecutors allege that Johnson received between $400,000 and $1 million worth of illegal cash and goods during his time as county executive, while the defense claims that the total value of the illegal payments to Johnson was between $200,000 and $400,000.

The indictment includes a detailed transcript of the telephone conversation between Jack and Leslie Johnson on the day of their arrests. As FBI agents knocked repeatedly on the door of the couple’s Mitchellville home, Jack Johnson instructed his wife to destroy the check and hide large sums of cash in her bra and underpants, and Leslie Johnson repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh my God,” according to the indictment.

Jack Johnson is free until sentencing on Sept. 15.

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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)