How did he do it, if he did it?
That’s what the 1,700 or so residents of Mount Sterling — and others — want to know about former village administrator Joe Johnson.
Johnson, 46, is in Tri-County Regional Jail charged with stealing nearly $1 million in village funds between 2012 and 2016. He is slated for arraignment in Madison County Common Pleas Court on July 27. He faces a total of 30 felony counts for theft, theft in office, money laundering, tampering with records, failing to file personal income taxes and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.
Engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity — sometimes called racketeering — is a first-degree felony that could put Johnson behind bars for years.
“It is the ‘umbrella’ charge,” said Bob Smith, special prosecutor for Auditor of State Dave Yost. Smith will prosecute Johnson’s case locally.
Often associated with mobsters, Ohio’s RICO (Racketeering Influenced Criminal Organization) law can apply to anyone methodically conducting an illegal enterprise or activity over time, Smith said.
Johnson allegedly bought vehicles, car parts, appliances, furniture, vacations and other items for himself and others with village money between 2012 and 2016.
“He frittered the money away,” Smith said.
Johnson is also accused of authorizing electronic payments to his personal bank account beyond his $60,000 annual salary.
And Johnson got away with it because no one was watching.
Smith called it a “lack of oversight.”
“There were no checks or balances,” he said.
The fiscal officer worked only one day a week, giving Johnson free rein to handle the books on four other days. He also had a village credit card that no one knew about, Smith observed.
Vehicles appeared to be an obsession with Johnson. They were an easy avenue for turning stolen money into “clean” money.
Smith said Johnson would use a village check or credit card for down payment on a car or truck, keep the vehicle for a few months, then sell or trade it for another. He repeated the process dozens of times, titleing the vehicles in his or another person’s name.
Johnson lost money on every sale or trade. But that did not concern him since it wasn’t his money to start with, Smith said.
Investigators were forced to construct a flow chart to trace the many transactions to their origin. Only 10 cars and trucks are listed on the search warrant executed at Johnson’s home at 3203 Camba Road, south of Jackson on July 19. They all led to his purchase of a 2016 Dodge Charger and a 2016 Ford F-350 pick-up, the warrant said.
However, deputies failed to find the specified Dodge. In its place was an older model Charger and a Ford Mustang.
Smith said Johnson also worked Ohio’s public employees retirement system to his advantage. He fraudulently back dated his retirement date from January to Nov. 29, 2015 in order to collect a $131,351 lump sum pay-out. The law requires a 90-day waiting period for lump sum collections.
Sensing an investigation was underway, Johnson immediately used the money to buy the Jackson County home. Smith believes Johnson feared future court-ordered restitution would take the cash.
That ploy may not work.
Smith and Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin moved to seized the Johnson’s property this week. If convicted, Johnson will be forced to forfeit the house and two garages in order to repay Mount Sterling.
Both Smith and Sabin are mum when asked about co-conspirators or future arrests in the widespread case.
“It remains under investigation,” Smith said.
Jane Beathard is a contributing writer for The Madison Press.
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