Federal Judge Terry Wooten sentenced former Williamsburg County sheriff Michael Johnson to 30 months in jail on Wednesday.
The sentence for conspiring in a felony white collar fraud was on the low end of the 30 to 37 months recommended by federal prosecutors. The judge also ordered Johnson to pay $15,875 in restitution and imposed three years of supervised release following the prison time.
Columbia businessman Lester Woods, who prosecutors described as the “mastermind” of the two-man identity theft scheme, got 33 months. In the scheme, Johnson used his sheriff’s post to create hundreds of false police reports of identity theft for Johnson, who then used them in his credit repair business to boost peoples’ ability to get credit to buy cars and houses.
Johnson’s hard prison time might not bode well for former Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts, due to be sentenced by Wooten later this spring.
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Several times during Wednesday’s six-hour sentencing hearing, Wooten stressed Johnson committed a serious betrayal of public trust by being an elected law enforcement official and being part of an ongoing illegal scheme.
“Anytime false police reports are prepared and submitted as legitimate, it’s a serious offense,” said Wooten. “It’s very serious for a law enforcement official to do this ... very serious to compromise the law enforcement process.”
Wooten continued, “The heart of the (law enforcement) process is reliability of documents.”
Metts has pleaded guilty to being part of a scheme whereby he took bribes to let illegal Mexican immigrants out of his county jail so they could work as a favor for a friend. In December, Wooten rejected a plea deal that would have let Metts get probation and avoid prison.
Wooten said he was impressed by Johnson’s life as presented Wednesday by his lawyer, Debbie Barbier, who told the court that the ex-Williamsburg County sheriff rose from a fatherless family to be a rock for his two children and three stepchildren, a pillar of the community and a person “who had his whole identity” wrapped up in being sheriff.
Johnson, of Kingstree, rose through the ranks, filling the sheriff’s office vacancy in May 2010 and winning his first election in 2012 with a 81 percent majority.
Barbier and Woods’ lawyer, Jim Griffin, raised numerous arguments throughout the hearing about why their clients deserved less time in prison than prosecutors did. Federal prosecutors had asked for 40 months for Woods and 36 months for Johnson.
Both Johnson and Woods, a successful Columbia businessman, had their wives and numerous family members present, telling Wooten that each man was a vital contributor to those around him. Like Johnson, Woods also rose from a torn family and overcame numerous obstacles to run successful businesses and was involved in helping others.
“I don’t recall any time when people have spoken so well, and so fondly, about defendants,” Wooten said, adding that nonetheless, he had to sentence both to prison because of the seriousness of the crime.
Woods got more time than Johnson because he had served time in prison in the past – a 1994 conviction for trafficking in cocaine – and Woods was obviously the instigator of the scheme, Wooten indicated.
Before being sentenced, Johnson choked back tears and told Wooten that he had failed his wife, his mother and “the citizens of Williamsburg County.”
Acknowledging publicly for the first time that he shares blame for the scheme for which a federal jury convicted him of last fall, Johnson said, “I fully accept responsibility for my conduct.”
“I stand before you as humble as I have ever been in my entire life,” Johnson told Wooten. Johnson chose not to testify at trial, but his lawyer, Barbier, aggressively attacked the government’s case at that time.
Woods, too, accepted responsibility and said he had no ill will toward prosecutor Holliday or investigating FBI agent Ron Grosse. Woods shook both their hands after the hearing.
In the scheme, which played out in 2012 and 2013, people would come to Woods with a bad credit history. For a fee – $1,000 or more – Woods would promise to “repair” their credit. He would then email or fax Johnson with the consumers’ information. Johnson would fill out a false police report stating that the person’s identification cards had been stolen and a criminal had used them to buy items that never were paid for.
Then Woods had the false police reports sent to giant credit company, Equifax, which restored the person’s credit. Equifax discovered the scheme when an Equifax investigator noted that an Atlanta man had filed a Williamsburg County police report using Woods as his credit agent.
“Atlanta – Williamsburg – Columbia – it didn’t make sense. It was a red flag,” Holliday said.
Holliday and Grosse began investigating the situation and eventually found that Johnson had furnished Woods with at least 245 false police reports.
It was an odd, possibly unique, white collar crime, Holliday said after the hearing.
“I don’t think we will ever see another one like this – to have a sheriff involved, writing incident reports for a private businessman,” Holliday said.
There were a number of victims, Holliday said: the nation’s financial system, which depends on people accurate credit information, as well as any retail outlet or bank that gave credit to someone whose credit had been “repaired” by Woods.
Holliday and the FBI weren’t able to show concrete evidence to prove that Johnson got any money from the scheme. But at last fall’s trial, Holliday told the jury it defied common sense to believe that Johnson had created 245 phoney incident reports and not made any money. Woods paid Johnson in cash, Holliday speculated.
Holliday put up 24 former Woods clients who testified they didn’t know an identity theft report had been made in their names to the Williamsburg County sheriff’s office. Some had never heard of Williamsburg.
In the past few years, Woods’ reputation for quickly restoring credit went nationwide. He got customers from across the country, whose names he would send to the then-sheriff.
Johnson and Woods will each have to pay $15,875 in restitution to 13 victims the government put up at the trial who had gotten their credit “repaired” by Woods using false incident reports. Those cosumers are subject to having their old credit rating reinstated.
S.C. SHERIFFS IN TROUBLE
Former Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson is one of nine sheriffs in South Carolina’s 46 counties to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010.
Seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only two of those sheriffs so far have been sentenced to prison.
A ninth sheriff, Berkeley County’s Wayne DeWitt, resigned just before he was indicted on drunken driving charges, leaving the scene of a crash and failing to stop for police from a crash in December. He is awaiting trial.
Ex-Lexington County sheriff Jimmy Metts is awaiting sentencing in federal court on a bribery conviction, also before Judge Terry Wooten. Metts pleaded guilty in January to taking bribes to let illegal Mexican immigrants out of his jail.