Originally created 11/10/99

Convicted senator signals plans to resign



ATLANTA -- Convicted state Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, who has been suspended since her March indictment, has signaled plans to resign from office.

However, state officials say she had not submitted her resignation as of Tuesday evening.

State law allows the Savannah Democrat to remain in office, though suspended, while appealing her July conviction on five counts of federal mail fraud. She was found guilty on all counts in what prosecutors called a scheme to lobby for and funnel state money into two black-tourism groups she controlled, eventually pocketing $80,000.

The suspended senator was sentenced last week to 41 months in prison.

Ms. Johnson repeatedly has maintained her innocence and vowed to stay in office even though her suspension would effectively leave her constituents without representation when the Legislature convenes Jan. 10. But Monday, her court-appointed lawyer filed a motion with Federal District Court Chief Judge G. Ernest Tidwell saying Ms. Johnson would resign.

During a sentencing hearing Friday, Ms. Johnson's attorney, Stephanie Kearns, asked that Chief Judge Tidwell release the senator on bond while she appeals. If he denies the motion, she will have to report to a federal prison within about a month.

Before ruling on the motion, Chief Judge Tidwell asked Ms. Kearns and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Nahamias to submit written answers to whether he could withhold bail if she doesn't resign.

"Whether the court can order Diana Harvey Johnson to resign her Georgia Senate seat as a condition of bond is moot, as Diana Harvey Johnson intends to resign her Senate seat," Ms. Kearns answered Monday.

In Mr. Nahamias' response Tuesday, he wrote, "Accepting that representation, the government assumes no further briefing on this question is needed."

But Ms. Johnson hasn't submitted her resignation yet to either Gov. Roy Barnes or Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who presides over the Senate. Both have called for her to quit.

When contacted Tuesday at her home, Ms. Johnson refused to say when she would step down.

"You're going to have to talk to Stephanie Kearns," she said. Ms. Kearns did not return three phone calls seeking comment.

Within 10 days of getting a resignation, Mr. Barnes must issue a call for a special election to fill the seat. That election must be held within 30-60 days of the call.

"Because the General Assembly convenes in January, he will move quickly to get the duly elected representative from Savannah in office," said Kara Jones, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, which supervises state elections.

Candidates typically will have about three days to qualify and pay a $400 fee, Ms. Jones said.

In her motion, Ms. Kearns says Ms. Johnson is appealing her conviction on the basis of instructions Chief Judge Tidwell gave the jury. If successful on appeal, Ms. Johnson could get a new trial or probation.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424.