Landscapers Defrauded Unemployment & Coerced Employees

GRAND RAPIDS - A mother and son from Lansing have been convicted for defrauding the Unemployment Insurance System. Kevin Romando Johnson, 39, and his mother Sara Johnson, 69, owned and operated Lansing Total Lawn Care. At the end of each mowing season between 2006 and 2010 the Johnson's would lay-off their workers and coerce them into applying for unemployment benefits. Then their workers would continue to work off-the-books, while the workers collected unemployment, and the Johnson's collected kickbacks.

A statement from the U.S. Department of Justice describes the scheme: "The defendants would then force the workers to toil for the company throughout the winter, driving snowplow trucks and performing other labor. The defendants did not pay the workers for this work, and informed them that unemployment "was their paycheck." Numerous workers testified that if they refused, Sara Johnson would call the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency ("UIA") and report them as "refusing to work," leading to the termination of their unemployment benefits. Workers further testified that Kevin and Sara Johnson demanded and received cash kickbacks from the workers' unemployment checks."

It was also contended that Kevin Johnson applied for and received unemployment payments himself, showing up at he unemployment Insurance Agency dressed in a laborer's T-shirt pretending to be a laid-off landscaper. The statement goes on, "Mr. Johnson lied on at least 54 certifications that he was "not self-employed," and had been "laid off." Documents and testimony established that Johnson used his unemployment checks to make payments on a Chrysler 300 Limited luxury sedan and fuel his fleet of landscaping trucks. While supposedly "laid off", Mr. Johnson purchased a time-share at a Las Vegas resort, and routinely used the company payroll account to make mortgage payments and take out cash for himself and his mother."

Kevin Johnson was convicted by a jury in federal court in Grand Rapids of mail fraud as well as making a false statement to a federal agent. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine. Sara Johnson, his mother, was convicted of mail fraud as well.

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