Cornish’s discomfort grew when he discovered a security company sweeping Johnson’s office suite for wiretaps, a search that included his boss’s car. Toward the end of Johnson’s first term, a high-ranking colleague told Cornish that the county executive had predicted that he would become wealthy before leaving office.
“That’s when I knew I had to get out,” said Cornish, who resigned in 2006. “I’m probably the only person who left who said, ‘He’s going to jail.’ You have a sixth sense about things.”
Cornish’s sense was dead on. As Johnson prepares for his sentencing in September on federal corruption charges, the story of his rise and fall is one of a consummate outsider becoming the gilded insider, a man who allowed greed and hubris to destroy everything he’d built.
As he ascended the heights of power in Prince George’s, Johnson promised nothing less than a new social order. He told audiences that he’d dismantle the “old boys network,” shorthand for the white developers, lawyers and lobbyists who had long feasted on government work. Johnson vowed to replace them with people such as himself, the outsiders, the African Americans and new immigrants — Indians, Pakistanis, Asians and Africans — who hoped to become players in the county’s political class.
Across two decades of public life in Prince George’s, Johnson was never the chosen one. He was the successor to two Democratic politicians who achieved history in two separate elections, Alexander Williams and Wayne K. Curry, the first African Americans in Prince George’s to become state’s attorney and county executive, respectively. They were revered for their oratorical skills and polish. Their rise was celebrated by a broad coalition of black and white voters.
Trajectory to office
Johnson’s path, though, was propelled by blue-collar and middle-class blacks, a core who believed that he told the truth about brutal police practices when the establishment was too afraid to speak up; who appreciated his fastidious dress; and who thought they knew him because he appeared at their barbecues, churches and hospital beds, kissing their cheeks and reminiscing about growing up in South Carolina.
His path from poverty to a brick colonial outside the nation’s capital was their story. His success represented their highest aspirations.
Yet, away from those crowds, in conversations secretly taped by federal agents, Johnson built a brazen web of patronage, cronyism and corruption. He talked of shaking down businessmen for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He talked of using his wife as a political pawn to help his allies. He talked of getting his share.