The Lone Prosecutor
It doesn’t quite have the ring of “ranger.” But Kyson Johnson is the only man in Texas who does what he does.
As far as schemes go, it was quick and easy. They would start at auto auctions in Grand Prairie, where they bought cars that had been declared “totaled” by insurance companies. They’d bid on high-end models—Infiniti, Lexus, Acura—usually paying about $2,000 for each car. Then they’d do some cosmetic work and “wash” the titles, registering them in other states, then bringing them back to Texas with no evidence they had once been totaled. This group of men—three brothers aided by a small network of cousins and neighbors—would then simultaneously insure the cars with different agencies, targeting smaller mom-and-pop companies in South Dallas. They’d take out policies worth north of $25,000 each. Then they’d crash the cars.
The insurance claims all looked the same. It was always a single car hitting a stationary object like a tree or a pole. There was always a lot of front-end damage. Within days, they’d collect fat checks from each of the insuring agents, a ruse that, with at least 71 claims, pulled in nearly $600,000. Because the scam targeted smaller insurance companies, the kind that likely couldn’t afford access to the national databases shared by the largest firms, it went undetected for months, possibly years. But one day an insurance investigator happened to notice that the same Acura had been reported as being involved in two different incidents just days apart. He sent out a bulletin to the insurance companies in the area, asking if they had any incidents involving the same names. Hits came back from all over North Texas.
This is where Kyson Johnson comes in. He’s the insurance fraud prosecutor in Dallas County. Now, insurance fraud prosecution might not sound like exciting party conversation—a lesson Johnson has learned more than once—but in a land fraught with all species of fraudster, this man is the only prosecutor in the entire state of Texas dedicated full-time to insurance fraud cases. He unwinds the labyrinthine scams that constitute some of the most elaborate, bizarre white-collar crimes. He protects consumers from unscrupulous agents, and he protects insurance companies against fraud-minded criminals. Policy holders pay, on average, more than $100 a year in higher premiums because of the bad guys that Johnson goes after.
“Every dollar that these criminals get away with is money being taken out of a policy holder’s back pocket,” says Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, which represents 500 insurance companies across the state. “A lot of prosecutors won’t take many insurance fraud cases. Some think it’s not big enough. Some think it’s just too complicated.”
Johnson’s background—former personal injury attorney, former reserve JAG officer who prosecuted one of the more famous military misconduct cases in U.S. history—makes him a perfect fit for the job. He grew up in Moore, Oklahoma, the son of a Baptist minister. His brothers are both cops, and his sister is the head of training and development for Guidestone Financial Resources. He worked his way first through Dallas Baptist University, then Texas Wesleyan School of Law, and started his career as a personal injury attorney. The money was good, but within a few years, he hated the work. In 2001, he was preparing a closing statement for a BMW-driving client who, after a minor fender bender, was suing for $5,000 in medical bills, plus lost wages and pain and suffering.
This fiscal year, Johnson has collected more than $70,000 in fines for Dallas County and millions more in restitution for both insurance companies and defrauded consumers.photography by Elizabeth Lavin
“It just felt so sleazy,” Johnson says, looking back. “I told myself at that moment, ‘I will never do this again.’ ” He jokes that he “came over from the dark side.” He took a job as a prosecutor in Grayson County, commuting 60 miles each way to Sherman, mostly to see if he even wanted to be a lawyer anymore. “I decided I would rather have driven a tractor for a living than work in personal injury one more day,” he says.
He wasn’t on the job long before the military called. He had joined the reserve JAG corps as a commissioned officer in early 2001. In 2004, his prosecutorial duties were needed in Iraq. There were some startling allegations out of a military prison most people had never heard of, a place called Abu Ghraib.
Johnson was co-prosecutor in the first case against the prison guards accused of torturing Iraqi prisoners. His wasn’t the most famous case—that would be Lynndie “Thumbs Up” England—but Johnson was featured prominently in books about the ordeal. He says that most of the media got the deal all wrong. “This wasn’t about intelligence gathering at all,” he says emphatically. It started with prisoners fighting in the yard, he says, and a few untrained prison guards getting retaliation later. “Some people got a little twisted, obviously. The entire situation was blown up by members of the defense and by members of the media.”
Not long after he came back to the States, Johnson saw a posting for his current job. Now he has seen all manner of scam: from people who faked their own deaths to people who forged letters from long-dead parents so they could continue to cash annuity checks. He’s had home-, car-, life-, and commercial-insurance cases, workers’ comp fraud and organized rings that make as much as the most prolific bank robbers. He’s even seen a few crooked agents issuing fake policies and essentially pocketing the premiums.
Prosecutors who work murder and kidnapping cases deal with bloody knives, smoking guns, videotaped car chases. But in Johnson’s cases, the weapons are all sheets of paper stained with ink, often buried in mounds of other material. He has to sift through them and demonstrate to a jury how an often regular-seeming person was able to steal from a complex financial system.
“Most of the defendants in my cases are normal, everyday people who have made a series of stupid decisions,” Johnson says. “My goal as a prosecutor is to seek justice, to make sure the situation is made right. Oftentimes, that doesn’t mean sending someone away for 10 years.” His weapon of choice: court-ordered restitution. In the case of that organized ring in South Dallas, several of the key players were sentenced to prison, but even the guys who got probation were strapped with more than $50,000 each in restitution requirements.
This fiscal year, Johnson has secured 52 indictments and has gotten 49 guilty pleas or dispositions (the one acquittal was a police officer accused of lying on workers’ comp claims). He has collected more than $70,000 in fines for Dallas County and millions more in restitution for both insurance companies and defrauded consumers. Dennis Pompa, the director of the Insurance Fraud Unit at the Texas Department of Insurance (Johnson’s boss in Austin), all but gushes over his employee of six years. “There’s no one in the state of Texas as competent when it comes to the ability to understand and pursue all aspects of insurance fraud,” Pompa says.
Though he works exclusively out of the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, Johnson is technically an employee of the Texas Department of Insurance. His salary is paid not by taxpayers but by insurance policy holders. (A small fee from every insurance policy goes to the state agency that funds his office.) When he was hired in 2005, there were plans to have similar prosecutors in Houston and San Antonio, but those were brighter economic days.
Still, if the cases he wins pay for his salary, it would seem to make sense that the state could afford more guys like Kyson Johnson. It’s an interesting question. If you see Johnson at a party, be sure to ask him about it.
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