Prince George’s County should strengthen its ethics regulations and get tough on government officials who try to make backroom deals or throw business to undeserving cronies and political supporters, a task force said.
In a sweeping examination of ethics rules in Prince George’s, the task force, led by Howard University Law School Dean Kurt L. Schmoke urged county officials on Monday to help the county shed its reputation as a place where businesses must “pay to play” by creating an independent inspector general’s office, retooling its weak ethics board, setting up an anonymous tip line and overhauling the county’s contracting procedures to ensure that awards are based on merit, not cronyism.
“Clearly, we needed help with this issue to make sure there is nobody in the world that looks at Prince George’s County and doesn’t know we are on the right path, that we are completely transparent,” said County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who convened the task force and has made ethics reform a hallmark of his fledgling administration.
The 250-page report — complete with numerous appendices, comments from the public and nine pages of recommendations — is the product of four months of meetings and deliberations. It comes after the recent guilty plea of Baker’s predecessor, former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D), in a wide-ranging federal corruption probe. Johnson, who for months insisted he was innocent, admitted in federal court last month that he took more than $400,000 in bribes in a plea agreement that showed he began shaking down developers almost from the day he took office in 2002.
Johnson’s legal problems were not specifically mentioned in the report, but the commission noted that it “was and is fully aware that citizens and residents perceive there to be an absence of effective rules and regulations governing the ethical performance of the county’s elected officials.”
The panel, formally known as the Accountability, Compliance and Integrity Advisory Board, said that its recommendations for the $2.7 billion county government would not be costly. But it cautioned that its proposals were only “initial steps” the government must take to provide greater accountability to the county’s 900,000 residents.
The challenge is vast. The county’s ethics board, made up of volunteers and part-time staff, was scrutinized by the task force, which noted that the board is virtually toothless because it lacks its own budget, staff, subpoena authority and enforcement powers. The task force also noted that many county officials are required to file financial disclosure forms to identify conflicts of interest, but that the ethics board does not review the filings.
The ethics board, as The Washington Post previously reported, did not hold a single meeting in 2010, the same year the FBI was closing in on Johnson and his wife, Leslie, now a member of the County Council. Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville) has been charged with witness tampering and destruction of evidence, but remains on the council while her case is pending.
The Schmoke panel also urged the county to shake up its 16-employee audits and investigations office by giving it full independence from the County Council to insulate it from political pressure. The county auditor, who heads the office, should be appointed for a term that overlaps the four-year terms of the council and the executive instead of coinciding with them, the panel said.
In a county sensitive to its reputation, Baker’s efforts have not been universally embraced. Some residents and local politicians have complained that by talking so much about ethics, Baker has left the impression that corruption is widespread among the county’s nearly 6,000 employees.
The task force took pains to point out that “the vast majority of county government employees serve . . . with integrity and effectiveness,” but said that “certain areas of operations were identified as in need of improvement.”
The next steps are unclear. Baker and Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) said they would study the report; Turner said the council would examine it later this summer or in the fall.
Besides Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore, members of the task force are: vice-chairman William D. Missouri, retired chief of the county’s Circuit Court; Patricia G. Adams, a member of the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission; Athena Malloy Groves, Orphans’ Court judge; former council member Peter Shapiro; and W. Chris Stewart, president of Educational Dimensions, a consulting firm.