Former Transit Union Official Pleads Guilty to Embezzlement

The former treasurer of the transit union that represents Valley bus and light-rail drivers faces up to 16 years in prison after pleading guilty on Tuesday to embezzling $273,000 from the organization.

Richard Wayne Johnson served as secretary/treasurer for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 from April 2005 until he resigned in January of 2012 after his theft of union funds was discovered.

He made a habit of abusing his position over the years, records show, making unauthorized withdrawals from the union's bank account, writing checks to his family members and covering his trail in part by filing falsified tax and revenue reports.

In his June 2 plea agreement in federal court, Johnson admits he made 160 withdrawals with ATU's debit card, receiving more than $78,000 in cash that he used for personal expenses. Sometimes he'd make purchases directly with the debit card, like in 2011 when he bought a home sound system worth more than $5,000 from Best Buy.

He also wrote checks worth more than $50,000 to family members by forging the union president's signature or fraudulently using a signature stamp.

To keep the embezzlement hidden, Johnson hired his son-in-law — falsely claiming the man was a CPA — to prepare bogus reports that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards. The plea deal doesn't list the son-in-law's name.

Johnson pleaded guilty to embezzlement of union assets, forgery — both felonies — and false reporting, a misdemeanor. He could receive consecutive sentences totaling 16 years.

The Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office found Johnson cooperative once caught, though, and has agreed that he could receive less than the maximum prison sentence possible when he's sentenced on August 17.

However, the deal calls for Johnson to pay back the $273,000 he stole, and he's prohibited from holding office in any labor union for 13 years after his conviction or release from prison, whichever is later.

Channel 5 News ran an investigative piece in 2012 about the theft, which was then only suspected. Reporter Steve Stout obtained a recording of a union meeting in which the embezzlement was discussed, talked to union officials and tracked Johnson down to his home, where he denied the theft and told Channel 5 "he has no idea where the money has gone."

New Times will update this piece later to let you know whether Johnson's relatives face prosecution.

We also left a message with ATU President Bob Bean, and we'll let you know if we hear from him with a comment.

UPDATE: ATU 1433 responds to New Times' request for comment, expresses relief the "dark chapter" of the union's history is finally over.

Also, a reader alerted us to the fact that we didn't mention whether Johnson is currently incarcerated. He was booked this week in the federal system, then released per court order on his recognizance until his sentencing hearing.

UPDATE September 15: Johnson was sentenced today to 1.5 years in prison and ordered to pay back the money he embezzled.

"The United States Attorney Office will vigorously prosecute those who abuse positions of trust within unions to steal from its members,” said Arizona U.S. Attorney John Leonardo in a written statement. "Johnson’s actions were harmful to the hard-working members of the union and to this community, and they are deserving of a prison sentence.”

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.