GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The former head of a state marijuana licensing board, who also once served as Michigan’s House speaker, was sentenced to prison Thursday in a bribery case a prosecutor called “utterly disgraceful.’’ 

Rick Johnson, 70, was lambasted for his betrayal of the public trust before a federal judge in Grand Rapids sentenced him to 4 years, 7 months in prison and two years of supervised release. He must also pay a $50,000 fine and more than $110,200 in restitution. 

“Today’s sentence sends a very strong message that public corruption will not be tolerated in the state of Michigan,” U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Mark Totten told reporters after the sentencing hearing, adding that the sentence was about double 2022’s average bribery sentence. “The length of this sentence reflects the seriousness of the offense. I want to be very clear: This was not a momentary lapse of judgment.”

Rick Johnson leaves the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids following sentencing on Sept. 28, 2023.
Rick Johnson leaves the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids following sentencing on Sept. 28, 2023.

The Osceola County dairy farmer acknowledged he solicited and took at least $110,000 in bribes while serving as chair of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board. The five-member panel reviewed and approved applications to grow and sell medical marijuana. Johnson served as chairman of the marijuana board for two years before it disbanded in 2019. 

“He injected corruption into an emerging, promising new industry where getting a head start could make all the difference,” Totten said. 

U.S. District Court Judge Jane Beckering said Johnson was the “mastermind” of the bribery scheme and argued the sentence “serves the interest of justice.” She said the former speaker was the “gatekeeper of integrity,” yet exploited his power and tore at the “very fabric and foundation of democracy.” 

The U.S. attorney said Johnson took at least 38 payments from June 2017 through February 2019. Johnson benefited from cash, trips, and “thousands of dollars’ worth of commercial sex” in a bribery scheme federal prosecutors said “resembled a well-orchestrated organized crime operation.” 

“He built an elaborate system to conceal these bribes,” Totten said. 

Investigators say Johnson used “burner phones” to cover his tracks, was called “batman” by bribe payers and had bribe payments laundered through multiple companies under his control. 

“He monetized his power and influence, demanded and accepted payments for help and action, and betrayed the people of Michigan,” Totten wrote in a sentencing memorandum. 

Three others were also charged. Earlier this month, Detroit-area businessman John Dalaly, who bribed Johnson, was sentenced to more than two years in prison. Two lobbyists await sentencing in mid-October. 

Johnson faced up to 10 years in prison for accepting a bribe, as well as a $250,000 fine. Federal prosecutors sought a sentence at the high end of the guideline range. Johnson’s legal team objected, noting his criminal-free past and years of public service. 

“The bad decisions leading to his conviction should not moot the many years of countless good deeds performed by Mr. Johnson,” defense attorney Nicholas V. Dondzila wrote in a sentencing memorandum. 

Dondzila asked for a smaller prison sentence of just over a year, citing Johnson’s “unmatched” commitment to public service beginning in 1971 and his “very serious health concerns,” which he fears will worsen in prison. Johnson is scheduled to get a catheter put in his heart on Monday. 

Despite Dondzila’s praise of Johnson, he acknowledged he demonstrated “poor judgement.” 

“He knew the system, and he took advantage of it,” Dondzila said. 

Johnson apologized to the judge, calling himself a “corrupt politician.” He admitted his life has changed forever and said he hopes to win back the community’s trust. 

“I made the biggest mistake of my life,” Johnson said. 

Prosecutors said Johnson lied about his involvement in the scheme during two initial meetings. They said Johnson didn’t come clean until December 2022 when law enforcement showed him “irrefutable evidence” that he committed the crime. 

Although Johnson received more than $110,000 from the scheme, prosecutors said the scheme was intended to yield millions of dollars’ worth of equity stakes. Prosecutors said Johnson would not have risked everything for $110,000 alone. 

Prosecutors later asked the judge to send a “wake-up call” to all public officials that bribery will be punished.   

The public corruption scandal came to light in April during a news conference outside the state Capitol building in Lansing. Totten at the time called public corruption a “poison” to democracy. In a sentencing memorandum filed a few weeks ago, Totten quoted President Theodore Roosevelt, calling bribery “a threat to the existence of democracy itself.” He said Johnson’s sentence should serve as a deterrent to anyone else who might pay or take bribes. 

“The results of public corruption can be corrosive. For those who play by the rules, they’re left behind or hurt. The public begins to lack confidence in our public institutions and people kind of lose hope in why they might participate in the democratic process,” Totten said Thursday. 

Johnson served five years in the state House and was House Speaker from 2001 to 2004. His political career started in 1971 when he was elected the Rose Lake Township treasurer. Before heading to Lansing, he also served on the Pine River Area School Board of Education and on the Osceola County Board of Commissioners. 

“He is a decorated public servant, a successful politician, a devoted family man, and a community-oriented person,” Dondzila wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “His personal and professional record were impressive and untarnished for 70 years. 

“Unfortunately, that streak has now come to an end,” Dondzila wrote. 

—News 8’s Rachel Van Gilder contributed to this report.