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Ex-driver for former chancellor pleads guilty to obstruction

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — The driver for former two-year college Chancellor Roy Johnson has agreed to plead guilty to obstructing a federal investigation by lying about corrupt financial deals with Johnson, U.S. Attorney Alice Martin announced Thursday.

Martin released a statement on the plea deal reached with Lanier Robert Higgins, who was charged with obstructing a federal grand jury in July 2006. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

"The scale of the corruption uncovered during the course of this investigation is staggering," Martin said. "This plea, and others that are expected to follow, will help insure that public officials who use their positions for personal gain are held accountable."

An attorney for Johnson, Joe Espy, did not immediately return a call for comment. Attempts to reach Higgins were not immediately successful.

Higgins had been a maintenance worker at Southern Union Community College when Johnson arranged for him to get a new position within the post-secondary department in late 2004.

According to prosecutors, the new job came with several perks, including a raise from about $32,500 to about $54,000, rent-free living in the president's house on the campus of SUCC, increased accrual of leave and no requirement to file required leave and attendance documents for time off work.

Martin said Higgins mainly worked as Johnson's driver and personal assistant but that he also received money from vendors who did work in the system and passed the money along to Johnson.

She said Johnson then used that money for personal expenses — mainly on construction costs on a lavish home he was building in Opelika.

Higgins allegedly established a fictitious entity in order to bill a vendor for "consulting" work that was not performed. Martin said that was done at Johnson's direction and the two created a cover story for the fraud when the federal investigation began.

Higgins testified falsely to the federal grand jury in Birmingham but later recanted and began cooperating with the government as part of the plea deal, Martin said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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