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Woman who bilked owner of Blackbird, other restaurants gets 28 months

Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file photo

After the owners of popular Chicago eateries like Blackbird realized their bookkeeper had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from them over several years and covered her tracks, she offered them a little “free advice.”

Don’t let one person watch the books and cut the checks.

To federal prosecutors, that comment was evidence that Renee Johnson, 61, knew exactly what she was doing as she made the daily choice over six years to steal $600,000 from One Off Hospitality LLC.

But Johnson almost seemed relieved when U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall handed her a 28-month prison sentence Tuesday afternoon. Now, at least, she knows the price she will pay for a crime that she said destroyed her whole family.

“I’m in jail already,” Johnson said.

The feds say Johnson handled invoices for several bank accounts related to the Blackbird and Avec restaurants as well as the company’s headquarters in Chicago. Between January 2011 and August 2017, they said she wrote more than 500 checks from those accounts and stole $604,113.

She used the money to make mortgage and assessment payments on several properties owned by her and her family, as well as to make credit card payments. She covered her tracks by making false journal entries and using check numbers that had already been used for legitimate purchases.

It all went off the rails when a One Off accountant installed a new software system and could not balance the books. Johnson pleaded guilty to mail fraud back in July.

During her sentencing hearing Tuesday, Johnson’s lawyer played a video of her interview with federal agents. On the recording, she complained about payments on various properties — including homes for her mother and uncle — and said things only got worse when she tried to get help from a banker.

She told agents, “it was like getting in bed with the devil … like they wanted to see you fail.” And when her employers confronted her, court records show, Johnson said, “I helped out too many people.”

Johnson told the feds she was embarrassed. And, she said, “the guilt just does not go away.”

“She got in over her head and she made a very, very bad decision,” defense attorney James Vanzant told the judge Tuesday. “And she’s paying for it today.”

Vanzant asked Kendall to give Johnson probation. The judge quickly shot down the idea, but she also didn’t hand Johnson the sentence of around three or four years that prosecutors requested.

Though Johnson has no criminal background, the judge noted that, for six years, she “thought like and acted like a criminal.” And while doing so, she victimized a group of people who had given her their faith.

“You needed money,” Kendall concluded. “It was the easiest way to get the money.”

“That’s just plain old criminality.”