It was a spectacle that did little to repair Prince George’s County’s tarnished image.
Leslie Johnson took her seat on the County Council less than a month after she was arrested with $79,600 in her underwear in connection with a federal investigation. In June, after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, she said she would stay in office until sentencing.
Only when colleagues and residents called for her to step down did she agree to resign. And even then, she stayed on the job for another month.
It was all legal under Maryland law.
That could soon change. Two state lawmakers from Prince George’s want to make sure that the Johnson scenario is not repeated. A bill introduced this week by Del. Jolene Ivey and Sen. Victor Ramirez, both Democrats, proposes amending the Maryland Constitution to immediately force public officials to resign when they plead guilty or are convicted of a felony, rather than wait for sentencing. The measure also would apply to officials convicted of misdemeanors if the crime is related to their official duties.
Amending the Maryland Constitution requires voter approval, and the bill would place a statewide referendum on the November ballot. The proposed change would affect all elected officials in Maryland, from the governor to part-time council members in the state’s tiniest jurisdictions.
Ivey said she has enough support in the House to force a referendum in November, assuming that the 85 lawmakers who signed on will actually vote for the bill. Ramirez needs to round up the support of 28 senators to ensure approval in the Senate.
Ivey said she was prompted to take action after the Johnson case but that it’s far from the only example.
“Some people seem to be more concerned about an elected official’s right to hang on to their elected position,” Ivey said.
“That is certainly not a right we have. It is certainly less of a right than the public has to effective representation. And an elected official cannot be effective when they are convicted and on their way out anyway,” she said.
Ramirez said he is “very optimistic” that the bill will be approved.
“We expect to have a bipartisan bill and broad support when it is all said and done.”
State law currently allows convicted fellows to continue to serve until sentencing, but some municipalities in Maryland have already taken a tougher stance.
In Laurel, which had a wave of public corruption in the 1990s, the city’s code was changed last year to require any elected official convicted of a felony to leave office immediately.