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Before leaving office, Prince George’s executive ordered up pricey tribute book

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In a warehouse in the center of Prince George’s County, stacked among pallets of paper towels, firefighter boots and bleach, sit 275,000 copies of a glossy booklet.

They were ordered up last year by Jack B. Johnson as a proud reminder for Prince George’s residents of the departing county executive’s political and personal legacy.

But there was no victory lap in Johnson’s final weeks in office, no march to a higher office or a big-time law firm.

The enduring image of Johnson (D) will not be one of the smiling photos in “A Legacy: Leadership, Service ” but the perp walk in November when Johnson and wife Leslie were escorted out of their house in handcuffs, implicated in a federal corruption probe.

And now, the booklets, which cost $226,597 in public funds, are probably headed for the shredder. Still labeled for mailing to the county’s 300,000 households, they never made it to the post office. If they had, it would have cost taxpayers another $275,000.

Johnson, who was county executive from 2002 to 2010, is hardly the first local leader to want to commemorate his service and share his legacy with constituents.

In neighboring Montgomery County, former executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) printed 3,000 copies of a four-page recap of his 12 years in office. The cost: $1,500, a county spokeswoman said. In Prince George’s, Johnson’s predecessor, Wayne K. Curry (D), did a soft-cover commemoration book and printed 5,000 copies. The cost was less than $20,000 in public funds, according to county records.

But such tributes were apparently too modest for Johnson, who envisioned a vast audience for his four-color, 28-page publication.

Events, though, got in the way. As the booklets were being printed, the Johnsons were being arrested. And whatever hope was left for the booklets died last month when Johnson, 62, abandoned his claims of innocence and pleaded guilty to taking more than $400,000 in bribes. In a deal with prosecutors, he admitted that he began shaking down developers almost from the moment he took office.

Johnson remains free as he awaits sentencing, scheduled for Sept. 15. Prosecutors said they will seek prison time, and federal guidelines recommend a term of 11 to 13 years.

Leslie Johnson (D), 59, remains a freshman member of the Prince George’s County Council, elected about 10 days before her arrest. She recently canceled a court appearance in which she was expected to enter a plea. It’s unclear whether she is trying to work out a deal with federal prosecutors.

Such distracting details conveniently escaped mention in “Legacy.”

Instead, it describes a county guided by a visionary leader who built schools, attracted businesses and lowered the crime rate. The glossy pages are replete with photos and comments from Jack Johnson at venues throughout Prince George’s, overlaid with quotes from the Bible, Dostoevsky, Mary McLeod Bethune and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

There is a family photo of the Johnsons during happier times: Jack, Leslie, their three children, among them son Bruce, who was hired a few weeks before his father left office for a job in the county’s health department in a process that appeared to flout county hiring rules.

The words in the booklet, which Johnson and his staff pored over for months, revising and then revising again, are now fraught with no small amount of irony.

“We visualized and shaped our own destiny,”Johnson says alongside a photo that shows him with arms extended under a highway sign pointing to National Harbor, the sparkling shopping and dining destination on the Potomac River that opened during Johnson’s tenure.

At the beginning of the booklet, Johnson extolled public service. “We are only here for a short time to make a difference. The positions we hold belong to the people. You, the citizens, have given us the awesome responsibility to serve.”

After Johnson’s arrest, salesman Brian Payne, who had handled the account for the printer, checked in with Johnson administration officials to see if they still wanted the booklets. A few thousand already had been printed.

“They said, ‘Go ahead and do it,’ ” Payne said.

Officials in the new administration of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) were angry when they learned of the booklets, to say nothing of the $77 million deficit Johnson left behind.

The printing firm, McArdle of Upper Marlboro, tried to give county officials some time to sort out what they wanted to do with the order. “We told them we would hold it for them until they decided what to do,” Payne said.

The Baker administration discussed trying to get out of the contract but decided that a deal with a local business inked by a previous administration needed to be honored and that the printer had done the work in good faith.

About two months ago, the booklets were delivered to the county warehouse in Landover, shrink-wrapped and addressed in batches of 25, spread across about 10 wooden pallets.

Scott Peterson, Baker’s spokesman, said the administration is trying to figure out an environmentally friendly fate for the booklets. “They will probably be recycled,” he said.

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