Prince George's Councilwoman Johnson resigns after guilty plea in corruption case

July 06, 2011|By Miranda S. Spivack, The Washington Post

Leslie Johnson walked into the Prince George's County Council chambers Tuesday morning, and began her usual routine — joining her colleagues in prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Although most of the council didn't know it, she had just handed in a resignation letter. Minutes later, she left through a back door.

It was Johnson's first appearance in public since she pleaded guilty last week to destroying evidence in a federal investigation of county government corruption. At the time, Johnson said she would stay on the council until her sentencing in October, prompting vociferous objections from fellow politicians and the public. Tuesday's letter moved the date up to July 31.

But Johnson's unexplained change of heart did not buy her any sympathy. The other council members voted yesterday to request her immediate departure, and ordered the council administrator to seize her cellphone, county car, parking pass, and computer if she did not turn them over voluntarily.

"We would like Ms. Johnson to tender her resignation immediately," said Council Chairman Ingrid M. Turner following the closed-door meeting.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III had already sounded an unequivocal call for Johnson's departure from the council, and after the news yesterday, Baker said Johnson should not wait until the end of the month.

"The resignation should be as quickly as possible," Baker told reporters.

Whether she bows to the continuing pressure, Johnson, by moving up her inevitable departure from the council, will spare the county some of the political acrimony that was already building around her decision. The special election to choose her successor will happen months sooner. And she will forgo thousands of dollars in her salary that would have been due to her had she stayed on until her sentencing in October.

But Johnson's defiance of her colleagues' wishes underscored the lack of teeth in the council's own governance mechanisms — something they have said that they hope to change.

"We can continue to urge," said Turner said, while noting the panel has little legal clout to force Johnson out of office.

There was no word from Johnson on what her plans might be.

After pledging allegiance to the American flag, Johnson, 59, was suddenly gone, having slipped off the dais, out the back door, and apparently out of the building as the council voted to meet in a closed session to discuss her fate.

While several hundred county residents, including Police Chief Mark Magaw, Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, and dozens of taxi drivers waited in the crowded council chamber for other items on the agenda, the council voted to go into a closed session.

When the council re-emerged, Turner said the council had voted unanimously to urge Johnson to resign immediately and would ask her to turn in her county-issued equipment. The council's administrator, Bobby Williams, said later the county could seize the items if Johnson did not turn them over voluntarily.

The council also reassigned her staff to report to Williams and will freeze grant funds — that she, like every other council member, was allowed to hand out to local non-profits.

But as long as she remains on the council, Johnson will continue to draw her salary, which totals about $1,870 a week.

It was clear from Turner's tone at a late afternoon press conference that the day had marked a turning point in the council's relationship with Johnson.

"We have not had contact with Ms. Johnson, " said Turner, a political ally and sorority sister of Johnson. "We have not seen Ms. Johnson. We have not talked to Ms. Johnson. We would like Ms. Johnson to tender her resignation immediately."

There is little in state or county law that gives the council or county government the tools to push her out.

Like so many of the twists in Johnson's story — her decision to take office despite her Nov. 12 arrest, her claim outside the courthouse that her actions were a simple "mistake" — Tuesday's events were yet another chapter in the drama that began eight months ago, when she was arrested with $79,600 in cash in her bra and underpants.

She had been overheard on a federal wiretap with her husband, County Executive Jack B. Johnson discussing how to get rid of evidence of bribes from developers. Jack Johnson pleaded guilty last month to taking more than $400,000 in bribes; he will be sentenced in September.

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