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Former ICE agent convicted on federal charges

Frank Johnston, a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, had a valuable informant — or so he said.

The informant was a Syrian-born, Arabic-speaking man who purportedly had information about an Albanian organized crime group involved in smuggling illegal immigrants. He also claimed to have details on a Garden Grove prostitution ring behind the exploitation of trafficked women. Johnston actively vouched for the man — a convicted felon.

In reality, however, the informant was a fraud, prosecutors say. They alleged that Johnston had tried to get the man signed up as an informant and secure him a favorable sentencing deal in exchange for a lucrative consulting position. Johnston was paid as much as $4,000 a month in consulting fees at the same time he was deceiving agents, attorneys and even a federal judge by claiming that the man was working as a confidential informant, according to prosecutors.

On Tuesday, a federal jury in Los Angeles convicted Johnston, 55, on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to federal authorities for his involvement in the case of Abdulahad Touma, who was convicted in Florida of purchasing untaxed cigarettes and faced an 18-month sentence. The panel deliberated for about half a day.

Touma was a close friend of a Glendora tire shop owner, Gary Nalbandian, who introduced Johnston to the owners of a nonprofit that hired Johnston, and later his wife, as consultants.

Johnston, who retired from ICE in 2009 after serving as assistant special agent-in-charge for the agency's Los Angeles field office, remains free on bail pending a second trial on charges of fraud. In that case, he is accused of scheming to keep his wife on the ICE payroll for six years while she was essentially a stay-at-home mom, in effect stealing nearly $600,000 in taxpayer money, prosecutors say. His wife, Taryn Johnston, is also a defendant in that trial.

Roger J. Rosen, Johnston's attorney, contended that Johnston never lied and that Touma did provide valid information — but that ICE agents failed to properly follow up on the leads he offered. "This should be an embarrassment to ICE," he told jurors during closing arguments.

The two-week trial that concluded Tuesday painted an unflattering picture of the L.A. office of ICE, the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A current ICE supervisor, testifying under a grant of immunity, contradicted statements he had made earlier before a grand jury, leading the judge to express concern about whether the agent was being truthful. In court papers leading up to trial, defense attorneys called into question another high-ranking ICE official's credibility, writing that they intended to cross-examine her about an alleged extramarital affair with a supervisor and other professional misconduct that led to internal discipline and demotion.

The agency said in a statement Tuesday that its internal affairs office had "spearheaded" the investigation. It declined to comment on the supervisor's testimony because the matter is still under investigation.

"As this conviction makes very clear, there will be zero tolerance for public officials who abuse their authority and violate the public's trust," said Steven Lovett, acting special agent in charge for ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility.

Prosecutors said Johnston was a seasoned ICE veteran who knowingly deceived a series of attorneys and agents in 2006 and 2007 in order to get a number of delays for Touma's sentence, while at the same time trying to get agency after agency to use him as an informant for a possible reduction in his prison term.

The consulting fees to the Johnstons stopped in mid-2007, when Frank Johnston failed to get another extension for Touma and the man surrendered to begin serving his sentence, prosecutors said.

"This defendant wasn't a rookie ... this is an experienced individual," Assistant U.S. Atty. Lawrence Middleton told jurors. "He knew exactly what Mr. Touma was doing, or not doing."

Johnston faces a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 23, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Akrotirianakis.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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