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Former Michigan marijuana chair sentenced to 55 months for bribery

Rick Johnson walking outside
Rick Johnson (left) pleaded guilty in April to bribery-related charges incurred during his service as chair of Michigan’s now-defunct marijuana licensing board. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)
  • Former medical marijuana board chair sentenced to 55 months in prison on bribery charges
  • Lobbyists used the code name ‘Batman’ for Johnson to coordinate cash payments, other benefits in exchange for licensing advantages
  • Bribes included sex work, cash payments, private flights

Rick Johnson, the former chair of Michigan’s now-defunct medical marijuana licensing board, was sentenced Thursday to 55 months in prison for accepting cash, sex work, private flights and other gifts in exchange for favorable treatment.

Johnson, 70, was also fined $50,000. That’s in addition to the $110,200 he agreed to pay the federal government as part of a plea agreement outlining the extent of his bribes, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Mark Totten said in a statement.

After completing his prison sentence, Johnson will serve two years on supervised release. 


“Rick Johnson’s brazen corruption tainted an emerging industry, squandered the public’s trust, and scorned a democracy that depends on the rule of law,” Totten wrote. “My office stands ready to fight public corruption whenever and wherever we find it, without fear or favor, following the evidence wherever it leads, with independence and impartiality.”

Johnson, 70, pleaded guilty in April to taking cash and other benefits from lobbyists and others while chairing the state’s now-defunct Medical Marijuana Licensing Board. According to court documents, he accepted 38 cash bribe payments over a period of 21 months, among other benefits.

Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, was a farmer who served in the House from 1999 to 2004 and was its speaker from 2001 to 2004. He worked as a lobbyist after leaving the Legislature. 

Johnson, along with two lobbyists and a businessman, was charged in an investigation into the state's medical marijuana licensing process. All four have pleaded guilty and signaled their willingness to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Johnson was appointed to chair the licensing board by then-Gov. Rick Snyder in May 2017. 

The board was disbanded in April 2019, a few months after Michigan voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency now handles licensing for the industry.

As chair, Johnson played a key role in determining which companies obtained licenses to legally grow, process and distribute medical marijuana — a power that federal officials say he knowingly exploited. 

Using the code name “Batman” in reference to Johnson in messages, lobbyists seeking an edge in the licensing process between 2017 and 2019 paid $2,000 to a sex worker on Johnson’s behalf, offered him tickets to sporting events and directed cash payments to him totalling at least $42,000 that were laundered through shell companies, according to court documents.

Johnson’s prison sentence is less than prosecutors initially sought. In court documents filed prior to sentencing, they asked the judge to send a “strong message” and sentence Johnson to at least 71 months in prison. 

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to bring charges against Johnson's wife, Jan Johnson.

John Dalaly, a West Bloomfield businessman who paid Johnson $68,200 in bribes through two companies and offered him chartered private flights for his work on the marijuana board, was sentenced to 28 months in prison Sept. 14. 

Two lobbyists, Brian Pierce and Vince Brown, are scheduled to be sentenced in Grand Rapids next month. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has cited Johnson’s criminal case to push for reforms to what she calls “weak” lobbying laws that make it easier for lobbyists to “fleece taxpayers and benefit personally.”

A survey of state lobbying laws by Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity found that Michigan’s laws  are “so incomplete or overly general as to render them useless in understanding a lobbyist's expenditures.”

Among other things, the law doesn’t require lobbyists to disclose what legislation or rule they are trying to influence while purchasing meals or hosting outings for Michigan lawmakers and policymakers.

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