When the mother of former Chicago Police Cmdr. Kenneth Johnson died in 1994, she left behind a bank account she shared with her son — the one where her monthly Social Security benefits landed.
The one Johnson described in court Tuesday as “the sword of Damocles.”
Rather than tell the Social Security Administration his mother had died, Johnson let the money flow until 2017. He spent it on hotels and airfare. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Chicago Police Department, committing a federal crime every month.
In total, Johnson stole $363,064. But U.S. District Judge Manish Shah refused to send Johnson to prison Tuesday, instead sentencing him to two years of probation that will include six months of community confinement.
Shah did so after Johnson told him “I am replete with misery and shame” — and after his attorney said Johnson feared losing his job with the CPD if he ever confessed the theft. Johnson called it “the sword of Damocles that has been over my head for 23 years.”
Johnson will likely spend his period of community confinement in a halfway house, though those details were not clear Tuesday. Michael Clancy, Johnson’s defense attorney, told reporters after court that Johnson had expected the judge to give him jail time, instead. The judge also ordered Johnson to pay the full $363,064 in restitution.
Scheduled months ago, the sentencing of the once-lauded former CPD leader deals another blow to the department’s reputation one day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired Supt. Eddie Johnson. She said she fired him for “lying to me and lying to the public.”
A further high-level shake-up may be on the way.
Kenneth Johnson pleaded guilty to the Social Security theft in May. Prosecutors say his crime came to light in 2017 after a Social Security program identified his mother — who would have then been 96 — as a beneficiary who had not used Medicare for three years or more. The Social Security Administration mailed a letter to her last known address to confirm her eligibility for benefits, but it never received a response.
Authorities eventually discovered that Johnson’s mother had died in May 1994, at the age of 72. From June 1994 to November 2017, Johnson let the Social Security Administration deposit what added up to $363,064 into an account he held jointly with his mother. He withdrew all but 59 cents, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Jodrey.
Johnson spent $398.50 of it at the Renaissance Hotel in Phoenix in December 2016, records show. He used another $229.88 to pay for flights from Chicago to Los Angeles and back in February 2017. Jodrey noted in a court memo that, at the same time, the Los Angeles Police Department hosted a Crime Fighters Conference attended by “senior police leaders from Chicago.” In court, Jodrey also said Johnson bought groceries.
Finally, records show Johnson withdrew at least $500 from the account using an ATM at the 7th District police station, where Jodrey noted “Johnson was employed as the District Commander earning over $160,000 a year.” Johnson retired from that position in 2018.
Jodrey had asked Shah to send Johnson to prison for as many as two years. In doing so, he argued that giving Johnson a probation sentence would not deter others from committing the same crime.
“That’s not deterrence,” Jodrey said. “That’s more like a court-approved, interest-free loan, courtesy of the American taxpayers.”