Crime & Courts

Testimony ties ex-sheriff’s computer account to phony fraud reports

The computer user name of suspended Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson was used to create or edit numerous incident reports alleging phony crimes of identity theft, a top county sheriff’s lieutenant testified Monday in federal court.

“According to the computer log, who edited the report?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday asked Williamsburg County Lt. Louie Timmons on the opening day of the government’s fraud case against Johnson.

“Mjohnson,” answered Timmons, who was on the witness stand about an hour at the federal courthouse in Columbia.

“And that is – ?” asked Holliday, as the jury of eight women and four men looked on.

“Michael Johnson,” Timmons said.

The testimony of Timmons, who like Johnson had come up through the ranks of the Williamsburg County Sheriff’s Department over 15 years, was the first evidence at the trial linking Johnson to an unusual alleged fraud scheme that a federal grand jury says targeted Equifax, one of the nation’s top three credit reporting agencies, and led to millions in consumer debt being written off.

According to the grand jury indictment, Johnson created phony police incident reports alleging that someone had been the victim of an identity theft and turned them over to an associate, Lester Woods, who ran a consumer credit repair business in Columbia.

The reports contained names, addresses and other information of people who had paid Woods from several hundred dollars to “a few thousand dollars” to improve their credit so they could get loans to buy things like cars, televisions and houses, according to the indictment and government officials.

Woods would then forward to Equifax the doctored Williamsburg County identity theft incident reports. At that time, Equifax’s policy was to remove debts and judgments from consumers’ credit records if presented with an actual police report alleging a stolen identity, according to the indictment, government officials and Equifax officials who testified Monday.

During the alleged scheme, which took place in 2012 and 2013, some $11.8 million in real debt was made to disappear from some 130 consumer records, the indictment said.

In cross-examining Timmons, Johnson’s lawyer, Debbie Barbier of Columbia, asked questions designed to show that someone else in the sheriff’s office could have used the sheriff’s computer name to create the false reports.

“If a computer was logged on by one deputy, could another deputy sit down and type at it?” Barbier asked Timmons.

“Yes, they could,” replied Timmons, who under Barbier’s questions replied that the office has about 10 computers and six individual offices, and that deputies occasionally went into Johnson’s office and used his computer.

No evidence was introduced Monday that linked Johnson’s alleged co-conspirator, Woods, to the fraud. Nor have prosecutors told the jury how Woods, who lived in the Columbia area, and Johnson, a Williamsburg resident, knew each other.

And while prosecutors have said that Woods’ credit repair business made money from getting customers’ credit upgraded, no evidence has been introduced showing that Johnson made any money from the scheme.

Holliday told the jury that Equifax is the primary victim in the scheme because its business depends on giving out and selling accurate consumer creditworthiness reports. But others who are hurt include businesses that sell items to consumers who wind up not being able to pay for them, and the debt-ridden consumer himself, Holliday said.

The scheme wound up being tried in federal court, because the federal crime of wire fraud was committed when Woods used interstate phone lines to fax the doctored credit reports from South Carolina to Georgia, where Equifax is located, Holliday said.

“When they are faxing false incident reports, that is the fraud,” Holliday told the jury.

Woods’ attorney, Jim Griffin of Columbia, told the jury in an opening statement that Woods is innocent and even though the government says Equifax is the victim, “You are not going to hear that Equifax was parted with any money.”

The investigation is all about the government’s unfair treatment of Woods, Griffin suggested.

“They believe Lester Woods may have found some kind of loophole, and they wanted to use the criminal justice system to close that loophole.”

In her opening statement, Barbier reminded jurors that Johnson grew up in Williamsburg County and spent his life in law enforcement.

“It’s not a job to him; it’s a calling,” Barbier said. “He wants his good name back. Ladies and gentlemen, we are fighting for his life.”

Judge Terry Wooten is presiding over the trial, expected to last about a week. If convicted, Johnson could face a maximum of 20 years in prison.