Rufus Johnson, a former New Orleans bail bondsman and frequent political candidate, may have illegally signed thousands of bail bonds over the years, transferred properties to hide his assets and “lied to my face,” a federal judge said last week.
But at least he’s punctual.
Johnson’s steady record of appearances in court led U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson to refuse a request by federal prosecutors to yank his $25,000 bond in a conspiracy case in which Johnson and three others are accused of scheming to rig bonds for Orleans Parish inmates.
“The fact Mr. Johnson cannot seem to open his mouth without making false or misleading statements is not enough to revoke his bond,” Wilkinson said. “Mr. Johnson presents to me a paradox: On one hand, you can’t believe a word he says. On the other hand, he has appeared in court every time he’s asked to appear.”
If half of winning is showing up, as the saying goes, Johnson has done his part to stay ahead, remaining free while he awaits an April trial date.
But Wilkinson also made clear that he sees trouble ahead for Johnson, long a fixture around the Criminal District Courthouse and on the ballot.
Johnson, 65, who once ran for office under the slogan “He has the favor of God,” most recently was disqualified last year from bidding to unseat U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. A judge ruled that Johnson had failed to pay long-standing state ethics fines from an earlier campaign but had checked a box on his state candidacy statement that said otherwise.
Johnson let his bonding license lapse in 1989 and was no longer eligible to get a license because he’s a convicted felon. Authorities say that didn’t deter him from using the licenses of others while paying off court clerks for favors that included access to computer system information and the illegal release of inmates.
All told, prosecutors named 11 people in the scheme, seven of whom have pleaded guilty over the course of a multiple-year probe into Orleans Parish bonding practices.
Indicted along with Johnson are his son, criminal defense attorney James Johnson; ex-bondsman Perry Becnel; and Josephine Spellman, a former employee of Rufus Johnson.
FBI Special Agent Krysti Hawkins testified that Rufus Johnson signed more than 11,000 powers of attorney in the names of licensed bondsmen. She also said he transferred a pair of properties into the names of others just days before a 2011 court arbitration date in Florida that resulted in a $650,000 judgment against Johnson and others for money owed to a Florida insurer.
Prosecutors characterized the property transfer as a shell-game transaction and part of a pattern that continued after Johnson’s arrest in late 2013.
A Louisiana State Police investigator, Leland Dwight, also testified that Johnson had written an illegal bond for a defendant in an alleged MDMA drug distribution ring, and that a licensed bondsman admitted he’d split the profits with Johnson, saying, “That’s the way they always did it.”
Dwight said he confronted Johnson about the transaction.
“I told him that was against the law, and he agreed and told me that’s what it was,” the trooper said.
Dwight said the case he was investigating involved local rapper Levar “Calliope Var” Elzy, whom he described as a frequent patron of Johnson’s illegal bonding business.
“When people would get in trouble, they’d go to Levar,” Dwight explained.
Elzy was arrested in December 2013 along with Johnson and seven others in an alleged racketeering scheme in Jefferson Parish. Soon afterward, Johnson was named in a federal complaint that led a year later to the 10-count federal indictment.
The first to plead guilty under that indictment, in March 2011, was Gilishia Garrison, who was working for both Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office when she took bribes to access court computers and forge recognizance bonds for some inmates.
The indictment names James Johnson in a pair of conspiracy counts and two counts of making false statements. He allegedly lied to an FBI agent when he said his father’s job at a bail bond company at 538 S. Broad St. involved “cleaning the offices, sweeping the floors, emptying the trash cans.” That account mirrors the statements of others who later said they lied at Rufus Johnson’s urging, Hawkins said.
Last week, Wilkinson found probable cause that Rufus Johnson had made false statements in filing financial statements with the court, among other false statements for which he has not been charged.
“If he’d keep his mouth shut, he’d spare himself a lot of difficulty,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson insisted only that Johnson switch the surety on his bond. It has been secured by Mary Smith, who along with Rufus and James Johnson remains liable for the $650,000 Florida judgment.
Johnson’s new attorney, Hilliard Fazande III, cast doubt on the federal charges, saying prosecutors can’t show that Johnson victimized anyone.
“Fraud dealing with signatures is only fraud if somebody was hurt,” Fazande said. “If you sign somebody’s name and you have permission to sign their name, it’s not even about statutes being violated.”
At worst, he said, the accusations point to an ethics violation, rather than a criminal offense.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.