A long-running federal probe into an allegedly illegal bail-bonding scheme that funneled kickbacks to clerks at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court yielded a federal indictment Friday against the ex-bondsman who has stood at the center of the investigation, along with his son and two others.
In a 53-page indictment, a federal grand jury accused perennial political candidate Rufus Johnson, his son James Johnson, ex-bondsman Perry Becnel and Josephine Spellman, a former employee of Rufus Johnson, of involvement in a 10-count conspiracy.
All told, the long-running investigation has now resulted in charges against 11 people accused of taking part in the alleged scheme, which authorities say ran from 2003 until last month. Among them are three former employees of Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell’s office.
Several of the defendants have pleaded guilty, beginning with the March 2011 plea of Gilishia Garrison, who was working for both Morrell and Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office when she took bribes to access court computers and forge recognizance bonds for some inmates, allegedly at the request of Rufus Johnson, Becnel and others.
In March 2012, a federal grand jury subpoenaed several boxes of bond ledgers, bail orders, bail bond contracts and other documents from Morrell’s office, apparently seeking to cast a wide net in a growing probe.
Until Friday, the fruits of that investigation came piecemeal, in charges against various alleged players in a scheme that often identified Rufus Johnson only as “Bail Bondsman A.” The Halloween indictment appears to be the culmination, describing the roles of all 11 people implicated in the alleged scheme.
Rufus Johnson, 65, who in August was disqualified as a candidate in the 2nd District congressional race for failing to pay state ethics fines, is named in seven of the counts in the indictment released Friday.
“I’m not aware of it. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment,” he said Friday by phone.
Becnel is named in four counts, while James Johnson is named in four and Spellman in three.
The charges against James Johnson, a defense attorney who is a ubiquitous figure in the criminal courthouse, include a pair of conspiracy counts and two counts of making false statements, including false declarations before a federal grand jury.
According to the indictment, James Johnson lied to an FBI agent when he said his father’s job at a bail bond company at 538 S. Broad St., across the street from the courthouse, involved “cleaning the offices, sweeping the floors, emptying the trash cans” and other menial tasks.
Authorities say Rufus Johnson actually was running a bonding business illegally, using the bonding licenses of others while paying off court clerks for favors that included access to computer system information and the illegal release of inmates.
James Johnson also is accused of lying to the grand jury when he testified that his father didn’t negotiate bonds at the business.
“But in terms of actual operations of the business, negotiating bail bond contracts, signing bail bond contracts, he wasn’t involved in any of that, correct?” asked prosecutor Michael Redmann before the grand jury.
“Not to my knowledge, Mike, um, no,” James Johnson replied.
James Johnson also was a state-licensed bondsman from 2000 to 2010, and federal authorities accuse him of abusing his authority by working as both an attorney and a bondsman for criminal defendants, while also serving as the liable agent of an insurance company backing the illegal bonds. A company he controls bought the Broad Street property within the last year, the indictment states.
According to the indictment, the scheme ran through a variety of bond firms, mostly from that address, where Rufus Johnson often could be found. Among the firms’ names were Rufus Bail Bonds, Bayou Bail Bonds, James Bail Bonds, Bayou-James Bail Bonds, Turning Point Bail Bonds and others.
James Johnson, 36, referred questions Friday to attorney Pat Fanning, who said he hadn’t yet seen the allegations and couldn’t comment.
All four defendants are accused of conspiracy to commit honest-services fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud, along with conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Rufus Johnson and Becnel also are accused in a racketeering conspiracy count and of conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a protected computer.
Becnel, who lost his bonding license in 2007, allegedly had an agreement in which he brought bonding business to Rufus Johnson and kept about half of the bondsman’s share — about 5 percent of each bond — for his efforts. He also is accused of paying Garrison and others to get recognizance and parole releases for his customers, according to the indictment.
Another previously charged ex-bondsman, Willie Irons, is accused of a similar arrangement with Rufus Johnson, according to the indictment.
Irons, whose bonding license lapsed in 2003, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count in 2012, accused of paying off Garrison for the illegal release of criminal defendants.
Spellman is accused of acting on Rufus Johnson’s behalf while knowing he was operating as a bondsman illegally. At one point in 2012, Spellman was charged as an accessory to second-degree murder after she turned in her grandson, who was wanted for a murder in the River Garden complex. At the time, she told a reporter that questioning in the case quickly turned to what she knew about Rufus Johnson.
For a time, federal authorities were probing Rufus Johnson for his involvement in helping notorious Central City crime kingpin Telly Hankton secure a $1 million bond by putting up $220,000 of property under a business name. The bond freed Hankton following the 2008 killing of Darnell Stewart on South Claiborne Avenue — a crime for which a jury later convicted Hankton.
While out on the bond, Hankton allegedly gunned down another rival, Jessie “TuTu” Reed, in 2009. Friday’s indictment makes no mention of the Hankton bond, however.
The indictment, which details alleged payouts to court clerks for access to computer database information, comes on the heels of federal charges last month against bondswoman Janet Smith and Patricia Tate, who recently had resigned from Morrell’s office, on counts related to the alleged scheme.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office accuses Smith of allowing Rufus Johnson to use her name on powers of attorney and a bail bond contract in transactions from 2009 to 2011. Prosecutors accuse Tate, 50, of accepting cash from Johnson to create lists of criminal defendants for him. She also allegedly delivered court documents to his office across the street from the courthouse.
Both Smith and Tate were charged in bills of information, a strong indication that they are cooperating with authorities.
Friday’s indictment also comes nearly a year after federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Rufus Johnson, with similar allegations against him. He has been free since then, and he sought to run for U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond’s seat in Congress this year but was disqualified after signing an affidavit swearing he owed no ethics fines or fees. A judge tossed him from the race after it turned out he owed more than $2,000 for failing to file timely campaign statements.
According to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Krysti Hawkins, Rufus Johnson claimed he never wrote a bond after 1997 and that his job consisted of “cleaning and sweeping around the office located at 538 (S.) Broad St.,” among other allegedly false statements.
Rufus Johnson owned that building through his company, Va Ru Ja Inc., and that’s where he engineered the scheme, according to the FBI affidavit.
Rufus Johnson let his bond license lapse in 1989. He was no longer eligible for a license because he’s a convicted felon, according to state insurance officials. The three other licensed bondsmen involved allegedly “sought and obtained” their licenses from the state Department of Insurance at Rufus Johnson’s request.
The affidavit from last year says Rufus Johnson used the licenses and signatures of Tynekia Buckley and two other unidentified bondsmen, later identified as Smith and Nicole Carrie, who worked for James Johnson at his law office at 1465 N. Broad St., the indictment states.
Rufus Johnson forged their signatures and ran the show, with the bondswomen needing his approval to write bonds, federal authorities alleged.
Buckley, 40, pleaded guilty last year to a conspiracy count related to the scheme, admitting she worked under Rufus Johnson’s direction. Johnson and Buckley gave Lear Enclarde, a former Orleans Parish bond clerk, an “ongoing supply of cash and other things of value” to look the other way, prosecutors alleged.
Enclarde also pleaded guilty.
According to Polite’s office, each count in Friday’s indictment carries a minimum five-year prison term.
“Today’s indictment shows our continued commitment to rooting out local corruption and fraud, and it also exposes some of the vulnerabilities in our local criminal justice system that can be exploited by the unscrupulous,” Polite said in a statement.
Morrell, the court clerk, said late Friday that the alleged crimes couldn’t be prevented.
“The system works fine, but you cannot monitor what they do on their own time, for what they’re thinking in their minds,” he said. “It’s just people doing things, and no one can tell what’s happening until it’s been done.”
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