It's a wacky world, to say the least, and occasionally I end up writing about people I know and even like, despite the fact that what I have to tell you about them may not be flattering.
This time, it involves a fellow whom many in Phoenix legal circles and in the activist community know as Jameson Johnson, whose company, Southwest Litigation Support, does mitigation work for attorneys.
That means he researches an attorney's client's past and puts together a package to present to a judge before sentencing, in hopes of scoring a lighter sentence for the defendant.
By all accounts, Johnson is good at it. So much so that his services have been utilized by a number of well-known lawyers in town.
Johnson is an affable, intelligent, and articulate guy. Heretofore, he's been well known and liked around the federal courthouse and superior court by both law enforcement officials and defense attorneys.
His now-former girlfriend Joy Bertrand is a CJA, or Criminal Justice Act attorney, one on a list of such lawyers who represent federal defendants, and she has a sterling record as a legal beagle in Wisconsin and Arizona.
A former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and former Assistant District Attorney in Milwaukee, Bertrand also has used Johnson for mitigation work.
I've known both of them from activist circles. For instance, Bertrand acted as a defense attorney for one of the "Capitol 9," the students arrested in April 2010 for chaining themselves to the Capitol building in protest of Senate Bill 1070.
Johnson was one of those who spoke out on behalf of Marcia Powell, the 48-year-old woman who died at Perryville Prison in 2009 after being left in a human cage for at least four hours in the blazing Arizona sun. He assisted in finding a final resting place for Powell and spoke at a memorial service for her.
Also in 2009, Johnson was instrumental in getting St. Mary's Food Bank to drop the use of off-duty Maricopa County sheriff's deputies near the facility. The fear being that the presence of MCSO cars and officers would deter some Latinos from taking advantage of the food bank's charity.
Johnson's been strident in his opposition to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and has expressed this to the Board of Supervisors during public comments at supervisors meetings.
Needless to say, both Johnson and Bertrand are beloved among local lefties, for the most part, as well as by some in the local Democratic Party.
Still, Johnson often cops a pro-law enforcement stance. He has vaguely described having been a cop in his past to me and to others. His Facebook page states that he was in the U.S. Navy from January 1987 to September 1998.
But Johnson has a few surprises in his past that he did not make public, and apparently kept secret even from Bertrand. According to court records, his name is actually Jimmy Carroll Johnson, and he has a criminal record in Nevada for armed robbery and in Oregon for second-degree robbery.
This information came to light in a public order recently issued by District Court Judge Neil Wake. Wake had previously authorized Johnson to render up to $2,400 in services to a defense attorney in a particular case.
But at some point, Wake was presented with information that Johnson was a convicted felon. In a sealed communication, he asked Johnson to appear before him and explain the criminal record. Johnson did not reply to Wake, so Wake issued an order, kicking Johnson off the case.
"The court concludes that Mr. Johnson is the same Jimmy Carroll Johnson, who is the subject of the two judgments of criminal convictions attached to this order," Wake wrote. "The court further finds that he failed to disclose those convictions to the court (or to defendant's counsel)."
The fallout from this incident has had broader implications than just for Johnson or any of the lawyers with whom he's been associated. District Court Chief Judge Roslyn Silver issued a general order earlier this month clarifying the requirements for non-licensed experts working for CJA attorneys.
Private investigators, medical experts, and the like must have their licensing confirmed by the lawyers. For those who do not need to be licensed — mitigators like Johnson — the lawyer has to at least present an accurate résumé. That is, if they want to submit a bill to the feds and get paid.
Following up on the documents attached to Wake's order, I was able to pull several mug shots from the police departments and penal institutions involved. Johnson was in the Nevada Department of Corrections' custody from May 18, 1993, to August 29, 1996.
This was for robbing a clothing store at gunpoint in Reno. According to reports from the Reno Police Department, after the robbery, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for grand theft auto out of Idaho, though what happened with that case is unclear.
I don't yet have the details on the crime in Clackamas County, Oregon. But the Oregon Department of Corrections confirmed that it held him from October 11, 1996 to July 11, 1997, and he was on probation 'til July 22, 1999.
Both of these records seem to belie the precise dates Johnson gives for his military record.
How did this information arrive on the desk of Judge Wake? Johnson's past came to light during an investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service following the arrest of infomercial huckster Don Lapre.
Lapre had failed to appear in court on June 22, for arraignment on 41 counts of fraud-related charges. Deputy U.S. Marshals collared him a day and a half later. He had been hiding out in a 24/7 Lifetime Fitness center in Tempe, where he supposedly attempted suicide by knifing his leg, trying to hit his femoral artery in order to bleed out.
The Marshals Service had the area under surveillance. Its deputies eventually pulled over a vehicle driven by a Lapre relative, with the wounded Lapre as a passenger, and one other person in the back seat wearing medical gloves: Jameson Johnson.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Matt Hershey confirmed Johnson's presence in the car.
Bertrand was also in the vicinity, in another car, and was ordered away by marshals, according to Bertrand's lawyer, Tim Eckstein.
"They were in the process of contacting the marshals service," Eckstein tells me. "But his injuries were so severe that he could have died or something close to that."
So Bertrand and Johnson were trying to get Lapre to a hospital, according to Eckstein. He says he is not at liberty to discuss how they discovered where Lapre was. Bertrand had not yet been formally appointed Lapre's lawyer, but she was about to be, according to court record. (After Lapre's arrest, a different lawyer was assigned.)
When I spoke to the Marshals Service in June about the incident, Bertrand and Johnson were not mentioned by name, but the Marshals Service had begun an investigation into then-unnamed individuals with Lapre during his arrest for possibly harboring a fugitive or hindering prosecution.
No charges were brought, and there is no evidence either Bertrand or Johnson broke the law. But the Marshals Service did uncover Johnson's misdeeds, some nearly 20 years old.
Eckstein tells me that Bertrand knew nothing of Johnson's past. In fact, he says, when Bertrand began dating Johnson, she did a background check on him, as a single woman might do. But she discovered nothing under the name "Jameson Johnson."
Bertrand is no longer using Johnson's firm, though there is nothing to preclude a lawyer from hiring Johnson still, even with his past record. There are instances of people with criminal records doing paralegal work for lawyers, for instance.
The most famous example locally is probably James Hamm, who is employed by Phoenix attorney Ulises Ferragut as a paralegal and mitigation specialist. Hamm, who has a law degree, did 17 years in prison for killing a man. He's never hidden his past and continues to work as a paralegal, though he is not allowed to practice law.
Why wasn't Johnson similarly forthcoming?
As this column was going to press, Johnson at last responded to numerous requests for comment. In an e-mail, he stated that there was a filing being made with the court in reference to the situation. And he decried my intent to tell this story, stating, "This is nothing but a smear campaign fomented by law enforcement, and is inconsequential to the overwhelming majority of news consumers."
However, according to Eckstein, Johnson has offered Bertrand an odd, Robert Ludlum-like explanation for his criminal record.
"He insists there's an explanation for all this," Eckstein says. "That the [court] documents are themselves either not true or were created at the behest of law enforcement to facilitate him going into jail as an undercover agent for some kind of operation."
Eckstein says he believes Johnson is looking for someone in law enforcement to back up this unlikely Bourne Identity scenario.
I asked around to different law enforcement officials I know. They told me such situations are rare, and if they're done, the record would be corrected once such an operation was over.
Bertrand and Johnson are no longer "together," in Eckstein's words. They once identified themselves as being in a relationship with each other on Facebook. No more, though photos on Johnson's page testify to the fact that, until recently, they were a happy couple.
Eckstein describes his client as being blindsided by the revelations, as well as "embarrassed, horrified, and concerned for her career" and how she'll be perceived in the legal community.
Several people who know both Johnson and Bertrand have contacted me, asking me not to write about the matter.
I did feel somewhat conflicted, as I've broken bread and had beers with Johnson, and, full disclosure, Johnson has provided tips to me in the past.
But if I didn't know either Bertrand or Johnson socially, this matter would still be a story that intrigued me. Perhaps it intrigues me even more because I'm familiar with them.
Heck, an erstwhile armed robber, who at age 42 had built himself a lucrative mitigation service and regularly interacted with the federal court, hobnobbing with cops and anti-Arpaio activists alike?
That alone is news. Add to it the fugitive vitamin titan Lapre, the fact Johnson kept his record a secret, along with his subsequent black-ops explanation for his past, and it practically sounds like the treatment for a Hollywood thriller.
Finally, it's not in my DNA to look the other way when some left-field tale comes rocketing toward my head. If it were, I wouldn't be in this business.
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