By ELGIN JONES
FORT LAUDERDALE — A Broward Democratic Party official accused of stealing party funds has surrendered to authorities and has been booked on an embezzlement charge.
Percy Lee Johnson, 41, turned himself in at the Broward County Jail, said Tim Donnelly, head of the Broward State Attorney's Office Special Prosecutions Division.
Johnson had been scheduled to surrender in June but prosecutors delayed filing the single count of grand theft – a third-degree felony — for unspecified reasons. Sources close to the investigation said the postponement came as prosecutors determined whether Johnson had any pending cases or prior arrests. Prosecutors also wanted to examine additional bank records.
His Aug. 22 arrest is related to alleged misuse of funds by writing unauthorized checks to himself for at least $2,195. A South Florida Times examination of some of those checks shows he also wrote checks to a relative.
Johnson was treasurer of the Broward County Democratic Party’s Council of Club Presidents, a political organization comprising more than 30 top officials of Democratic Party clubs and caucuses.
Johnson, who served as treasurer for eight years, did not seek re-election in voting during April 2011. The newly elected officers asked for the financial records and when Johnson was slow to turn them over, they threatened legal action. Some records were handed over and an examination showed Johnson wrote numerous checks to himself without explanation.
Some of the checks in question were written between 2008 and 2010, the largest being for $220. Many do not indicate what the money was used for. Two were made out Johnson’s sister for $40 and $60 for “consultant work.”
Johnson repaid the money but some of the council’s board members called on him to resign other positions he held in both the Broward County Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Party.
Johnson refused, prompting Bernie Parness, Corey Alston and other officials of the organization at the time to file a criminal complaint with Fort Lauderdale police. The Broward State Attorney’s Office joined the investigation.
“The state attorney did what he thought was proper,” said Parness, the immediate past president of the Council of Club Presidents. “Our party stands for integrity and when we found irregularities and were not able to address them internally, we turned to the police,” Parness said. “It’s not personal. As leaders of the organization, we had an obligation to members and fulfilled it.”
Johnson did not respond to calls or emails this week seeking comment. In an earlier interview, he acknowledged writing checks to himself and making cash withdrawals from the party’s account and expressed regret. He said he believed the money was used for “official council business.”
Johnson is highly regarded among party loyalists and some of the party’s most visible members voiced displeasure over the charge.
“While I am not intimately familiar with the charge, I am very familiar with Percy. I have found him to be a good and decent man that I am proud to call my friend,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “Percy has done so much for so many in the Democratic Party despite battling a catastrophic illness resulting in a transplant.”
Finkelstein was adamant that Johnson should not “go to jail.”
“This prosecution seems to be about picking low-hanging political fruit rather than crawling out on the long dangerous limb of corruption that is strangling Broward because it is easy and has little political blowback,” Finkelstein said.
Attorney Randy A. Fleischer, a party official, also expressed concern.
“I see no need to bring criminal charges. The money was returned. Percy has been humiliated. What purpose does going through a trial and putting Percy in jail do?” Fleischer said.
The case is pending before Broward Circuit Court Judge David A. Haimes, with arraignment set for Sept. 10.
*Pictured above is Percy L. Johnson