A fourth member of the Prince George’s County Council on Friday joined the call for Leslie E. Johnson’s swift resignation, as the council’s attorneys were studying the law and reviewing council rules to see what steps the nine-member panel could take to oust Johnson or diminish her role until she is sentenced in October.
“Definitely, she needs to go,” said council member Mary Lehman (D-Laurel) on Friday, joining County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and council members William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) and Vice Chairman Eric Olson (D-College Park), who on Thursday urged Johnson to resign immediately and not wait until her scheduled sentencing Oct. 13.
Johnson (D-Mitchellville) stunned the county’s political establishment when she did not resign her seat after admitting in federal court Thursday that she tried to cover up bribes by flushing a $100,000 check down the toilet and stuffing $79,600 in her bra and underpants as federal agents knocked at her door. Under Maryland law, Johnson will be required to step down when she is sentenced, but not before then.
Johnson’s guilty plea came six weeks after her husband, former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D), was convicted of accepting more than $400,000 in bribes from developers during his two terms.
Leslie Johnson’s decision to hold on to her job, which pays $96,417 annually, means she will be able to collect nearly $28,000 in pre-tax salary for the 31 / 2 months that she retains her seat.
The views of the other four council members remained unclear. Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), council member Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland), both close allies of Johnson and members of the same sorority as Johnson, and council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) did not respond to requests for comment. Council member Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), reached by telephone, said she preferred not to discuss the matter.
Johnson, a lawyer and a former administrative law judge, will lose her right to vote once her conviction is final. She is likely to face disbarment.
Turner has scheduled a closed-door executive session Tuesday, after the council’s regularly scheduled public meeting, to discuss personnel issues and to receive advice from the council’s attorneys, according to the council’s agenda.
The council will need to vote in public to convene the closed-door session, and by law it is required to report any votes it takes in the closed session and to cite specifics about what was discussed.
Johnson’s decision delays the plans of several potential candidates who are gearing up to run for the seat once Johnson vacates it.
“I have been calling for her to resign from the beginning, but she wants to collect her paycheck as long as possible. It is time for the County Council to step up and do the right thing,” said Venus Bethea, who ran in last year’s Democratic primary against Johnson.
Derrick Leon Davis, who also ran in last year’s Democratic primary and plans to run again, said residents are ready to move on.
“I believe in my conversations with citizens that they are ready to take the next step,” he said. Others also are eyeing the seat, including community activist Arthur Turner and former state delegate Gerron Levi. Former council member Samuel H. Dean, who held the seat before Johnson, has not responded to repeated phone calls seeking to learn of any designs he may have on his old post. All are Democrats.
State law allows Johnson to stay on the job until her felony conviction is final, which will occur when she is sentenced. County law does not specifically address whether a council member can continue to serve once she has pleaded guilty to a felony but before she has been sentenced. The council, by a two-thirds vote and after a public hearing, can remove a council member for physical or mental impairment, but it is silent on what, if any, steps are available to remove a member convicted of a crime.
Council sources say that members have begun their own behind-the-scenes conversations about possible ways to remove Johnson or diminish her influence, including encouraging her to take an extended leave of absence or persuading her to remove herself from providing a key fifth vote on close controversies.
Davis suggested that the council also consider tightening the law “if there comes a time that we have to make these decisions again.”
Ralph Grutzmacher, who for years was the council’s top legal adviser, said he thought the panel had the authority to withhold funds from Johnson’s office and take other steps administratively to restrict her.
“The key point here is that an elected official is entitled to a salary and nothing else,” he said.
Last year, shortly after the new council convened, members met in a closed session — with Johnson present — to discuss what steps they should take given that she had been arrested and charged but not convicted. They voted to take away her membership on council committees, but she retained voting rights on the full council and has regularly attended committee meetings, asking questions and participating in deliberations even though she could not vote.
Council members also said they would handle development issues in her district, but on June 20, they allowed Johnson to delay council action on a housing development in her district and place it on a future agenda for further examination.