NEW ORLEANS -- Ex-Councilman Jon Johnson walked out of federal court Thursday with a six-month prison sentence hanging over his head.
Johnson resigned from his post as District E councilman in July after pleading guilty to misusing FEMA dollars intended to help the 9th Ward Housing Development Corporation.
Johnson used those funds instead to bolster his 2007 state Senate campaign. He also submitted fake invoices to the Small Business Association after getting a loan for post-Katrina construction on his home.
Prosecutors say Johnson misused nearly $80,000 in federal funds, which he’ll have to pay back in restitution, in addition to a $5,000 fine. Johnson’s attorney, Julian Murray, said he didn’t understand how federal officials determined that amount.
Johnson must also serve six months home confinement after his prison sentence is complete. Murray said his client must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence.
“This is a person who violated federal law who had been a public servant and shouldn't have. We'll continue to fight those battles,” said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
In court, Johnson apologized for the crime, but said his focus remains his 8-year-old daughter, for whom he has been caring since his wife’s untimely death.
“My daughter is really my concentration here to be very, very honest with you all,” he said. “It's all about Hannah for me. That's the interest that I have and that's where my head is.”
Johnson’s attorney painted the former councilman as a public servant who ultimately spent countless volunteer hours and tens of thousands in his own money helping the community.
“This is America, I [have] a right to disagree and I strongly disagree with him having to go to jail, all the good that he did,” said Murray. “I just don't think a jail sentence with that little girl needing him as badly as she does is appropriate. I think probation would have been the right sentence.”
But in court, Judge Lance Africk told Johnson, "You chose to use federal taxpayer funds, dedicated to a non-profit organization, not to improve the neighborhood and the people you sought to represent, but for your personal gain… You chose to serve yourself at the community’s expense."
Johnson was not in office when he committed the crime.
Johnson's sentence is a fraction of the maximum guidelines for his crimes.
“Judge Africk, it appears to me, fashioned the sentence around the personal circumstances of Jon Johnson,” said Eyewitness News legal analyst Donald "Chick" Foret.
Over 100 community members sent letters asking the court for leniency. Dozens of community supporters were inside the courtroom during the sentencing. But it remains to be seen whether Johnson will be remembered for his decades of public service or his conviction for misusing public funds.
Johnson scheduled to report to federal prison Jan. 8.
Africk said he allowed Johnson 40 days before his sentence begins to get his affairs in order, especially when it caring for his daughter. Africk said the end of the prison sentence should coincide with the end of the spring semester at school.