Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who campaigned on a platform to clean up the government, proposed legislation Tuesday to strengthen the county’s ethics office.
The measure, which come two years after a widespread corruption scandal under Baker’s predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), would expand the ethics office’s responsibilities, beef up its staff and create a tipline for whistleblowers. But it does not include an independent inspector general as some had urged.
The proposal follows months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the County Council. Some members and staff were worried that the council’s $2 million Office of Audits and Investigations would lose influence if Baker (D) created an independent inspector general.
Under a compromise, Baker said the expanded ethics office would leave the formal auditing of government programs to the council staff, and instead would focus on trying to ferret out abuse of government funds, as well as employee conflicts of interest.
“This actually gets to what we want to do in Prince George’s County,” he said in an interview.“It gives us an office that scrutinizes ethics and accountability, it gives us a prosecutorial piece.”
Baker said he would look for an expert such as a former prosecutor or judge to head the new office, and plans to insulate the office from political interference. The office would have a budget of about $375,000, and the director’s appointment would be subject to council approval. Previously the office had a part-time director, a lawyer who had other responsibilities in the county attorney’s office.
Besides a full-time director, the office also would have two investigators and an administrative aide, similar to the inspector general’s office in Montgomery County. Under the bill, Prince George’s also would set up a phone line that would accept anonymous tips.
The measure also provides legal protection for whistleblowers in county government. As part of the ethics push, Baker and the council have funded an additional county prosecutor and paralegal who would be designated to handle corruption cases.
The ethics legislation will be subject to a hearing and vote by the council in the fall. It was introduced a day after a federal judge in Greenbelt said the county had been an “unfortunate cesspool of corruption,” as he sentenced a former county police officer to three years and 10 months in prison in a scheme to illicitly sell untaxed alcohol and cigarettes.
Judge Peter J. Messitte was referring to 16 corruption cases, among them the bribery and corruption case of Johnson and his wife, former County Council member Leslie Johnson (D). The Johnsons, who are now in prison, were arrested shortly before Baker took office in 2010 in a wide-ranging scheme that involved several county officials, local businesses and real estate developers.
Baker’s proposal follows a report last year by Howard University Law School Dean Kurt L. Schmoke and a task force that Baker appointed urging the county to strengthen the ethics office. The panel also urged the county to get tough on government officials who try to make backroom deals or throw business to undeserving cronies and political supporters.
The Schmoke panel recommended that the county set up an independent inspector general’s office and retool its ethics commission, which oversees the ethics office. It also recommended that the county create an anonymous tip line and overhaul the county’s contracting procedures to ensure that awards are based on merit, not cronyism.
Although the legislation introduced Tuesday did not address all of the recommendations, Baker’s office has taken steps to tighten standards for awarding outside contracts, which total tens of millions of dollars annually in the $2.7 billion county budget.
The Schmoke panel also urged the council to shake up the 20-person Audits and Investigations Office by giving it full independence from the County Council to insulate it from political pressure.
There has been no indication that the council plans to alter the way that office operates.
Tuesday’s ethics bill is the second of its kind that Baker has championed. Last year, he secured passage in the General Assembly of a bill that limited the County Council’s ability to review development deals.