A federal judge sentenced New Orleans criminal defense attorney James Johnson to five years probation and a $50,000 fine on Monday for his failure to report the lead role of his father, Rufus Johnson, in an illegal bail bond scheme involving kickbacks to Orleans Parish court clerks.
James Johnson, 38, pleaded guilty in April to misprision — or deliberate concealment — of a felony after admitting he failed to report his father's illegal activities, which included negotiating bail bonds without a license.
He maintained that he knew nothing, however, about his father's generosity to a pair of Criminal District Court judges, allegedly in exchange for bail reductions and no-money recognizance bonds for Rufus Johnson's clients.
James Johnson's April guilty plea came a day after Rufus Johnson abruptly pleaded guilty to six federal counts as testimony was underway in a trial for both men plus a third defendant, Josephine Spellman, Rufus Johnson's former secretary.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Harry McSherry and Jordan Ginsberg claimed Rufus Johnson paid court clerks for pre-signed bond forms, fraudulent recognizance bonds and access to internal computer information on inmates.
Rufus Johnson also paid off former Judge Charles Elloie with hundreds of dollars worth of weekly lottery tickets and the judge's morning breakfast in return for favorable bail decisions, prosecutors alleged. The first two government witnesses in the trial also testified that Johnson supplied free food, drinks and staff for parties thrown by former Judge Frank Marullo.
James Johnson, who was a bail bondsman before he became a lawyer in 2004, was accused of helping in the illegal scheme and lying to a grand jury to cover for his father, who had given up his bail bond license years earlier due to a drug conviction.
But at the end of a hearing Monday that ran nearly three hours, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle rejected a recommended sentencing range of 24 to 30 months for James Johnson, saying the defendant had learned his lesson.
"James Johnson, in my opinion, is not going to be before me again nor before any other judge or law enforcement officer," Lemelle said.
"Rufus Johnson was a manipulator. He was a manipulator right up to the end."
Guilty pleas by all three defendants ended the April trial abruptly. In August, Lemelle sentenced Rufus Johnson to a 74-month prison sentence. Spellman, who pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice, received five years of probation.
Rufus Johnson paid dearly for turning down an earlier plea offer — a package deal in which he would have received a 21-month sentence while James Johnson would have pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and avoided possible jail time.
Rufus Johnson's attorney, Arthur "Buddy" Lemann III, argued to no avail that Johnson's refusal to take the deal, while saying he was awaiting a decision from God, warranted a hearing to determine his mental competency. But in a trembling plea for mercy Monday, James Johnson cited a different reason that his father refused to take the deal — one that didn't involve God.
"It was a money play," he said. "I'm embarrassed to say it: He wanted me to pay him to plead guilty, and I wouldn't do it."
He described a struggle to free himself from a domineering father, while feeling indebted to his parents for a charmed upbringing that included an education at Isidore Newman School and Tulane and Southern universities.
"It's something I have to take responsibility for," he said. "My responsibility is that I never stood up to my father."
He acknowledged that he lied to a grand jury in March 2014 when he claimed he was unaware that his father was negotiating and writing bail bonds illegally from a South Broad Street office. He also admitted failing to tell anyone that Rufus Johnson was paying cash to Gilishia Garrison, an Orleans Parish sheriff's deputy and Criminal District Court clerk, to release clients from jail on bogus recognizance bonds.
He said his father told him about two such payoffs when investigators began digging into Orleans Parish bond documents.
"In this particular case, I didn't act like a lawyer. I admit that I was acting like a son," he said.
The Louisiana Supreme Court temporarily suspended James Johnson's law license in May, pending the outcome of the criminal case.
He was the last of 11 defendants to plead guilty to roles in a scheme that spanned several years. Only Rufus Johnson received a prison sentence.
Lemelle scheduled a Feb. 8 hearing on restitution in the case.