Awash in scandal

Our view: The arrest of Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife on corruption charges is a serious blow to public confidence in government

November 16, 2010

If, as federal prosecutors assert, the arrests Friday of Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife on charges of evidence tampering and destruction of evidence are just the "tip of the iceberg" in a wider corruption probe, the case could make former Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon's perjury and theft ordeal look like child's play.

The investigation has already produced nine more arrests this week, including three Prince George's County police officers on charges involving drugs, guns and black-market alcohol and cigarettes. Also arrested were a Howard County couple whose homes and businesses were searched, as well as four others on related charges. Federal officials say more arrests may be on the way.

All this must be deeply mortifying to county residents who had hoped that with the election this month of incoming counry executive Rushern L. Baker III, who ran on a reformist platform, their local government's odor of ethical laxity, corruption and graft might finally begin to fade. That can't happen as long as Mr. Johnson remains in office.

But if events so far are only a taste of what's to come, residents also need to be asking themselves how long the rot has been festering, and why nobody seemed to notice until now. Where were county council members and the oversight role they're supposed to perform? In the case of the alleged untaxed black-market cigarettes and alcohol, where was the state comptroller's office that's supposed to monitor sales of those commodities?

It's not clear how the suspects taken into custody Monday are related to the Johnson arrests, which appear to involve alleged "pay-to-play" schemes in which top officials demanded money under the table from developers doing business with the county as a condition for allowing projects to proceed.

What is known is that on the day of Mr. Johnson's arrest, a developer cooperating with the FBI who had previously given the county executive $5,000 gave him another $15,000 in cash, which agents later found in Mr. Johnson's pocket. After Mr. Johnson was questioned and released that morning, agents monitoring his phone heard him tell his wife to find and destroy a $100,000 check at their house by flushing it down the toilet, and to hide nearly $80,000 in cash inside her bra as FBI agents stood knocking at their door.

The appalling image conveyed by that single episode of an officeholder scrambling to cover his tracks in the aftermath of alleged wrongdoing is so disturbing, one wonders how Mr. Johnson can even consider filling out the final three weeks of his term; yet Mr. Johnson showed up for work on Monday as if nothing had happened. Although he is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, whatever credibility he may have enjoyed as the county's top elected official is effectively over. He should resign and turn over his responsibilities to Mr. Baker immediately rather than wait for the official inauguration Dec. 6.

The same goes for Mr. Johnson's wife, Leslie Johnson, who won a seat on the Prince George's County Council this year. There's no way she can be an effective advocate for her constituents with the ethical cloud now hanging over her head as a result of her apparent complicity in her husband's alleged misdeeds. She should step aside now and allow someone else to fill that role.

As for Mr. Baker, whose first task will be restoring confidence in the integrity of county government, it won't be enough simply to focus on the "kitchen table" issues he pledged to address during the campaign. He needs to move aggressively to put teeth into reforms such as closing loopholes in campaign finance laws that allow council members to vote on projects by developers who give them money, and enacting tougher disclosure and registration requirements for lobbyists so that citizens can know whose money is behind proposals that come before county lawmakers. He should also fulfill a campaign pledge to create a county inspector general's office to conduct independent audits and investigations of government contracts. The county will never overcome its tainted politics until it learns to effectively police its own.

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