Johnson not barred from seeking office

Johnson not barred from seeking office
Officials in Pierre have assured the staff at city hall here that James A. Johnson is permitted to be a candidate in the upcoming June 6 Vermillion mayor's race, despite a string of legal problems that began in 1991 and didn't end until 2003.

The Vermillion man's criminal history includes two simultaneous felony convictions and a stint in the South Dakota penitentiary. He was also taken into custody twice on parole violations, each which returned him to a jail cell.

Those parole violations are related to a string of driving while intoxicated and other traffic violations.

"We've consulted with the secretary of state's office and the (South Dakota) Municipal League, just to make sure that everyone is unanimous on it," Vermillion City Attorney Jim McCulloch said. "As long as he has served his prison sentence and is off of parole, he's basically restored to his rights as a citizen, particularly his voting rights."

On June 11, 1991, Johnson was arrested on a complaint of four counts of grand theft. On Dec. 12, 1991, Johnson pled guilty to two counts of embezzlement, a Class 4 felony punishable by 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.

Johnson was sentenced by Judge Gene Paul Kean on March 5, 1992 in the Clay County Courthouse to an eight year term on each of the two counts of grand theft to be served concurrently in the penitentiary.

Five years of each sentence was suspended on the condition he make restitution of $64,000 to two of his former clients � Myrtle Twedt and the estate of Elizabeth Van Why � within one week.

According to the March 19, 1992 Plain Talk, Johnson delivered a check in the amount of $64,000 on March 10, 1992.

"When you steal from a widow and an orphan, it's a whole different program. That's what's disturbing about this," Kean told Johnson during the sentencing hearing in 1992. "And it didn't happen in one case. It happened in two cases. You don't take clients' money. You don't borrow from a client, you don't use anything that belongs to a client." Johnson, a former attorney and associate dean at The University of South Dakota School of Law, was disbarred in 1990 by the South Dakota Bar Association.

South Dakota Attorney General Mark Barnett represented the state at Johnson's sentencing. During the proceedings, it was noted that Johnson stole money from the late Elizabeth Van Why of Vermillion.

She died May 11, 1991. Johnson had power of attorney over Van Why's financial affairs for many years.

According to the original complaint filed by the state, Johnson was charged with converting more than $42,000 of Van Why's money to his own use.

John Van Why, Elizabeth's son, told the court that Johnson took the money while his mother was dying in a nursing home. He said restitution was important, because his mother's estate, which Van Why said was "gutted" by Johnson, was to be the main support for his mentally handicapped brother, Robert, of Vermillion.

Barnett said his office's investigation showed a pattern of behavior by Johnson, in which the former attorney obtained funds from elderly clients.

"He took them to the bank, he took them to church, he took them to the store, and ultimately, he took them to the cleaners," Barnett said at Johnson's 1992 sentencing. "The defendant has used his legal skills, and most importantly, his people skills, to take advantage of people."

In April, 1993, Johnson was arrested in Union County for speeding. He was stopped again Feb. 2, 1994 in Lincoln County for driving under the influence (DUI), first offense. On May 11, 1994, he was sentenced to a year in jail. The jail time was suspended and a $1,000 fine was reduced to $350, with $81.50 in court costs.

Later that year, on Aug. 23, he was arrested for driving with a suspended license in Clay County. The case was dismissed.

A month later, on Sept. 21, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, second offense, in Clay County.

That conviction, a violation of his parole, sent him back to the penitentiary to serve additional time for his grand theft conviction.

"Once someone is sent to the penitentiary, and then placed on parole, it's not within the jurisdiction of circuit court or the state's attorney when they violate the parole," Clay County State's Attorney Tami Bern said. "It's strictly with the Board of Pardons and Parole."

When Johnson broke the law while out on parole, "there are two different matters, the underlying criminal offense which I would prosecute again if it happened in Clay County, and the separate matter of the parole violation," she said.

Johnson returned to Clay County in May 1995 and pled guilty to DUI, second offense. He paid $570 in fines and costs, and was sentenced to 10 days in the county jail.

He spent additional time in the Clay County Jail in 1997 for a second parole violation.

Johnson was stopped in Clay County for driving under the influence for the third time in December, 2002. He was indicted for that offense in September, 2003.

He paid approximately $1,120 in fines and costs, and was incarcerated in the county jail for 90 days. Charges of failure to stop � accident with property damage, and failure to report the accident to a police officer were dismissed.

McCulloch said he's been advised that even though Johnson's past includes a felony conviction and two trips to the penitentiary, "as long as he can qualify and as long as he is a registered voter, he is eligible to run for office."

People with felony records are, with the passage of time, eventually able to vote in political elections once again, McCulloch said.

"Once you have served your time � your debt to society � and are either released from probation or parole, your rights as a citizen are restored,"

he said.

Court records show that incument Mayor Dan Christopherson, who is seeking re-election, has received two speeding tickets. A third mayoral candidate, Brian Fagnan, was cited once for speeding.

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