I always figured Jon Johnson for a crook, but I never thought he was a dummy — until last week, when the now-fallen city councilman admitted in federal court that he diverted more than $16,000 in hurricane relief funds to his failed 2007 state Senate campaign.
As if that wasn't dumb-ass enough, Johnson also convinced two associates to help him fabricate phony invoices, which he submitted to various federal agencies in a feeble attempt to cover his tracks.
What was he thinking?
The feds caught up with him easily enough, and he copped a plea last week. The deal included his immediate resignation as the District E councilman. He now faces up to five years in the pokey, a $250,000 fine and restitution of the trousered federal funds.
The whole thing went down so quickly that many were caught off guard by Johnson's precipitous downfall. Mind you, no one who knows Johnson was surprised that he was outed as a rapacious crook; many just didn't realize the feds were on to him — or that he was stupid enough to think he could get away with such a ham-fisted scheme.
Throughout his 24-year legislative career, Johnson was known as a guy who often leveraged his political office for private gain. He landed a food concession at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas while sitting on the state Bond Commission, which helped finance the facility. And he backed plans to convert the World Trade Center into a hotel — but failed to disclose that his love interest was an investor.
He survived those scandals but slid into political obscurity when he lost his state Senate seat in 2003. He tried to win back the seat four years later in a race that, according to his guilty plea, saw him funnel the recovery funds to his war chest. Johnson ultimately came back to power in 2010 when he won the District E seat on the New Orleans City Council.
One would think that a guy who is as well educated as Johnson (he taught economics at SUNO) would by then have noticed all the local pols who had been nailed by the feds — from suburban parish leaders to fellow New Orleans hacks — and realized that he was lucky to have skated this far. If he had half a brain, he would have concluded that he needed to walk the straight and narrow going forward.
But no, he obviously thought he was much smarter than all those other crooks — and the feds.
In fairness, Johnson's confessed crimes occurred before he came back into the political spotlight. But let's not forget that his guilty plea was part of a deal that his lawyer artfully negotiated. The feds undoubtedly had more on him.
In the aftermath of Johnson's admission, some have drawn comparisons to Oliver Thomas, who abruptly resigned from the City Council in 2007 and admitted taking $19,000 in bribes. Those comparisons don't hold up. Thomas was loved and universally respected — and not widely suspected of being a crook. Even in his darkest hour, Thomas came across as sincere and genuinely contrite. His downfall also caught most by surprise.
No one was really surprised that Johnson was caught stealing. He certainly wasn't loved. In fact, many who dealt with him over the years knew him to be a pompous, self-dealing bully.
And even in disgrace, Johnson tried to sugarcoat his thievery by issuing a statement citing "my years of honest service to my city and state."
He must think voters are as dumb as he is.