Teen campaign workers say state senator stiffed them

State lawmakers have taken some criticism for passing bills at the last minute, but one state senator is being criticized for how he handles his own bills.

Two young men who worked for State Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) claim that money owed them has never been paid.

"I had fun working for you, but i want my money," said Dimitrus Smith. 

"I feel that was a very nice job," DeMarco Brown said. "But when i seen that you don't want to pay us, it turns out that you don't deserve to be the senator anymore."

Smith and Brown are cousins  and former co-workers on their first job for Johnson's re-election campaign.

Brown, 14, says the senator owes him $175.

"They had us make calls, make signs," Brown said. "One day he had us pass out fliers to save this park that was on the east side."

Smith is 15, he says Johnson owes him $125.

"It was kind of hard because I had to get up early in the morning and catch the bus to just be on time," Smith said. "And when we got there, the hours were long."

They are not the only ones calling Johnson a deadbeat, so is Eric Foster, a political consultant suing Johnson.

"It was excuses, it was 'I'm trying to work this out, give me time, let me be patient, you know, be patient,'" Foster said.

"He made promises, he never fulfilled the promises," said Marc Fishman, an attorney suing Johnson.

Johnson, a Democrat from Highland Park, sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee - those who decide how to spend your taxes. In other words, those who are supposed to be good with money.

Johnson has a list of past financial issues including a foreclosure, unpaid child support, evictions, bad debts, unpaid income taxes and he even bounced a check to himself. 

"I was hoping my nephews would learn determination, hard work, how the political process works," said Hoodari Brown, the boys' uncle and friend of Bert Johnson. "I blame myself because I actually brought them to him."

Smith said he had been saving to buy school supplies.

The boys never received their last checks so Hodari Brown called and texted Johnson.

Johnson responded: "How much do I owe them."  There were more texts, but no more checks.

Johnson told FOX 2 that he knows both guys.

"They've been paid," Johnson said.

FOX 2: "DeMarco says he's owed $175."

"Demarco is not owed 175 bucks," Johnson said. 

FOX 2: "His cousin says he's owed 125."

"His cousin is .. DeMarco is the young fellow who showed up much more than his cousin," Johnson said. "They've both been paid," Johnson said.

FOX 2: "Here's a text message from October -  'Good morning Bert. I've been trying to contact you and set up a meeting. I'll be at Second Ebenezer tonight around 8 p.m. so perhaps you can meet me there so we can finalize the business of paying my nephews because this reflects upon me.'

"The response was  'I'm doing a meeting. I'll call you asap. His response: 'Please do.'"

"We had that discussion," Johnson said.

FOX 2: "And so you're saying between you and Hodari this has been resolved?"

"I don't think (Hodari Brown) agrees with the resolution," Johnson said. "We're talking $300 - $300 is no enough to fall out with anybody about."

"He's dirt," Hodari Brown said. "He doesn't deserve being in public office. When you can't pay two young men who work hard for you.":

Johnson says he wouldn't cheat children.

If anything, Johnson says he is the victim in this case.

"What those brothers owe me are the books that I shared with them," Johnson said. "That they haven't brought back to me at my house. That's what they owe me.

Hodari Brown says his nephews returned the books johnson gave them to read before he hired them. Smith says his first brush with politics left him with a troubling question.

"I wonder what else he lied about," Smith said. "Since he lied about when he was going to pay us."

Which brings us back to the gentlemen you met earlier - Foster. In 2010, Johnson hired him as a political consultant then he bounced a check to him.. 

Foster sued Johnson and a jury ordered the senator to pay Foster $2,500 which Johnson has not paid in full.

"I owe him, I owe him half that money," Johnson said. "And we'll get it to him. We paid him half this summer. And we'll pay half before the winter is up."

A former storefront was Johnson's 2010 campaign headquarters and his landlord's lawyers say he owes about $10,000 in rent.

"It started off rocky and it ended rocky," Fishman said.

Johnson says a court ordered him to pay the landlord before he even knew he was being sued.

"What I got in the mail was a garnishment," Johnson said. "I didn't challenge it because the garnishment came down to a sum of money that was going to come out of my personal money that I was really comfortable with. and that's the truth."

Johnson was first elected to the state House about 10 years ago. Since then, he lost a house to foreclosure - the very house he bought from former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

"I walked away from a house," Johnson said. "My family took a hit. and I moved on with my life."

A court ordered him to pay back rent on a Hamtramck loft

"My name was on the lease," Johnson said. "I did a friend who was in trouble, a favor and they shall remain nameless."

Johnson also failed to pay income taxes in Highland Park in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

"It was a real clerical error," Johnson said.

He was later evicted from this home in highland park.

"The way they did business wasn't right," Johnson said. "It was unholy."

Johnson never showed up for court and a judge ordered him to pay more than $17,000.

"That deal taught me something," he said. "That trusting some people sometimes is the wrong thing to do."

Johnson said some people are lying about his reliability. 

Trust is an important thing when it comes to public officials, so FOX 2 asked Johnson about the answer he gave the Detroit Free Press this year for a voter's guide. '

They asked every candidate if they had ever filed for bankruptcy - Johnson answered no.

 Now listen to what he told FOX 2 after being asked the same question earlier this month:

"I filed for bankruptcy. it didn't go through," Johnson said.

In fact, Johnson filed for bankruptcy three times  but he says it would be wrong to view him through the prism of his financial difficulties. 

After spending time in prison for an armed robbery he committed as a teenager, he has won four straight elections to serve in Lansing. 

He says that he has put his life together and got into politics. He says he is a go-to guy on important issues and that he gives back to his community.

"Am I going to sit here and say that I haven't had some things that have qualified as challenges, no," Johnson said. "But Bert Johnson pays his bills."

Dimitrus Smith and DeMarco Brown beg to differ.

"If my grandma voted for you, and then i was working for you, and then you didn't pay me," Brown said. "I feel like what's the point of voting for you, if you're not going to pay her grandson."

Johnson insists he owes the boys nothing. FOX 2 made another appointment to see him again. 

Johnson said he would bring payroll records but later said he could not find the paperwork.
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