(Posted March 9, 2017)
By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
Joseph A. Johnson, former Mount Sterling village administrator, is headed to prison for 10 years for offenses including corruption, theft in office, money laundering, and tampering with records.
Eamon P. Costello, Madison County Common Pleas Court judge, handed down the sentence on March 6. With it, he ordered Johnson to pay $724,239 in restitution to the village of Mount Sterling and $43,460 to State Auditor Dave Yost’s office for costs incurred in the investigation.
Costello said that in addition to causing financial harm to the village, Johnson’s offenses resulted in psychological harm.
“You were a public servant in a position of trust, and you betrayed that,” he said to Johnson at the sentencing. He added that the betrayal could have a long-lasting impact on the public’s ability to trust elected or hired officials.
Beyond Johnson’s offenses, Costello described the oversight process in the village of Mount Sterling as “extremely troubling.” He cited an ordinance passed by the village council in 2014 that expanded the village administrator’s authority when it came to use of village funds.
Costello said the legislation essentially “eliminated checks and balances” and “created a vacuum” in which Johnson could commit his crimes.
“It’s a little bit difficult to exactly assign who dropped the ball,” he said.
Mike Murray, a West Jefferson attorney representing Johnson, said during the sentencing that Johnson was made a scapegoat for what he alleges is negligence and complicity involving other individuals.
“There were a whole lot of people asleep at the wheel on this thing and a whole lot of other people who were complicit,” Murray alleged.
About the judge’s decision, Robert F. Smith, deputy legal counsel for the state auditor’s office, said, “You can’t undo the harm that’s been done… At least now the village has a chance to heal.”
About whether or not more charges against other individuals are forthcoming, Smith said, “The investigation is ongoing.”
Johnson, 46, was arrested on July 19, 2016, following an investigation by the Madison County Sheriff’s Office and state auditor’s office into expenditures he made as village administrator using village funds between 2012 and 2016. He was charged with 30 felony counts.
At the March 6 sentencing, Johnson pled guilty to seven of those counts. The remaining 23 were dropped. The seven include one first degree felony, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, and six third degree felonies, including one count of theft, two counts of theft in office, two counts of money laundering, and one count of tampering with records.
For these combined offenses, the maximum sentence is 29 years and the maximum fine is $80,000. As the plaintiff in the case, the State of Ohio asked for 10 years with five years of mandatory post-release control. The fines were dropped in light of the massive amount of restitution Johnson owes.
Johnson is forfeiting the personal assets he acquired through illegal use of village funds. Proceeds from the sale of these assets will go toward what he owes the village. The assets include: a home and adjoining parcel of land in Jackson, Ohio, a John Deere mower, a Ford F-350, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a Dodge Charger, and a Ford Mustang.
As part of the plea bargain, charges will not be pursued against Johnson’s wife, Tara. The Johnsons have two children, a son and daughter, who live at home.
At the end of the sentencing hearing, Johnson said, “I love my family very much,” and, “Everybody makes mistakes.”
Following sentencing, Johnson was transported back to Tri-County Regional Jail. From there, he was slated to go to the Orient Corrections Receiving Center for classification and assignment to a penitentiary. He has 30 days to appeal the sentence.