In Prince George’s, ethics reform moves ahead but work remains as Baker seeks a second term

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III came into office three years ago pledging to weed out corruption in a county with a long history of scandal.

Now, as Baker (D) nears the end of his first term and prepares to announce on Thursday his bid for a second, he can claim several successes. But he has also abandoned one of his biggest promises, the creation of an independent Office of Inspector General, and recently there were accusations that politics played a role in the awarding of a major county contract.

(Mark Gail/The Washington Post) - Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker

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In an interview, Baker said he had to compromise with the County Council on some of his plans. And his administration often was juggling pressing issues — a rash of homicides, a growing budget gap and a battle over bringing a much-needed new hospital to the county — which he said forced him to put elements of his ethics reform plan on the back burner.

But he pledged to continue to make it a top priority in a second term. He has no opponent in the 2014 race.

“I feel good that we have done a lot,” he said. “We have weathered some really tough storms, but there is so much more to do. . . . Part of ethics and accountability is openness. People should have the feeling that it is not a secretive, corrupt government.”

On ethics reform, he said, “we did not get everything we wanted. That’s the way the legislative process works.”

Baker had made ethics a top priority even before his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), and Johnson’s wife, incoming council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), were arrested in November 2010 on corruption and bribery charges. Leslie Johnson was taken into custody with $79,600 in cash in her underwear after a local developer was videotaped by the FBI handing Jack Johnson $15,000.

Baker, 54, who served two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates, said during his campaign that he would propose numerous reforms within the first 30 days of his administration.

In early 2011, Baker convened an ethics review panel led by former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke (D) that offered a blueprint for reform, including employee training on ethics, creation of an anonymous tip hotline, instituting an independent inspector general and augmenting protections for whistleblowers.

One of Baker’s first major victories came that same year, when he won approval in the General Assembly of a measure to limit developer contributions to the County Council. He also eliminated county credit cards for employees and urged government workers to rebuff gifts and free meals.

Baker next established a 311 system, a non-emergency way to contact county government on a wide range of concerns. He instituted a data-based process to evaluate nonprofit grant applications to eliminate what many nonprofit organizations had complained was a system steeped in cronyism. He established a County­Stat program to evaluate government operations.

He expects soon to name an executive director and an investigator for an expanded county ethics office. There also will be a tip line for leads on potential corruption.

But other elements of his 30-day reform plan have not been put in place or have been substantially reworked.

He abandoned his campaign promise to install an independent inspector general, instead expanding the ethics office, in part because council members worried that it would interfere with the work of their own $2 million Office of Audits and Investigations.

There is no online database of county salaries, although contracts are online and the county Web site is undergoing a redesign that should be completed later this year.

And the council still plays a major role in reviewing development projects and can drag cases out much longer than in many neighboring jurisdictions, making developers leery of the possibility of pay for play.

While focusing on ethics, Baker also has juggled an ambitious agenda: school reform, a neighborhood improvement program for six high-poverty areas, seeking funding for a new hospital, and trying to establish a regulatory system more welcoming to businesses and residents. He helped orchestrate a political campaign that could bring a resort casino to National Harbor.

But recently, a losing bidder on a major county contract accused Baker’s administration of using pay-to-play tactics, an allegation reminiscent of the corruption under Johnson.

In a formal complaint filed with the county’s procurement department, the company, AST, based in Naperville, Ill., alleged that politics caused it to lose out on the $42 million contract to overhaul the county’s financial records and payment system. Specifically, the company alleged that several people affiliated with what became the winning bid from LSI Consulting of Sudbury, Mass., threw a fundraiser for Baker in January. LSI chief executive Mark J. Schexnaildre did not respond to requests for comment.

The fundraiser was attended by Vennard Wright, the county’s information technology chief. Wright was part of a panel examining the bids.

“We believe that this fundraiser, topic of discussion, hosts and attendees compromised the integrity of the county’s selection process,” wrote Rick McGaughy, a regional sales director for AST. “It presents a clear conflict of interest for the county and LSI Consulting and/or its subcontractors to have participated in this event.”

But an internal review led by the county’s procurement chief, Monica J. Johnson, found no wrongdoing, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

“The conduct of a political fundraiser during a competitive solicitation does not present a compromise to the process,” wrote Johnson, whose Office of Central Services handles purchasing and contracting for the $2.7 billion county government.

Still, the circumstances of the fundraiser and the bidding process create, at minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

“This is a big issue,” she said. “Procurement is where conflict of interest and campaign expenditures have a huge potential for undue influence and in a very insidious way. . . . We would call on County Executive Baker to say, ‘Here is my donation history,’ and give out some specifics of the contract, show that there was a best bidder and that there isn’t any malfeasance.”

Baker said he was unaware of the dispute and had purposely insulated himself from issues involving contracting and procurement to avoid any suggestion that he is directing awards or rewarding campaign contributors.

“We are going to do everything that is within our ability to make sure we are as ethical as humanly possible,” he said.

M.H. Jim Estepp, who heads the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said Baker’s efforts to instill a more ethical culture in government have begun to take hold.

“For the most part, he has fulfilled his campaign promises with respect to ethics. He has sent a very clear message that it is not ‘business as usual’ in Prince George’s County and that projects are going to be judged on their merits and the value they bring, and on need . . . not on who you know.”

Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), a close Baker friend, said the sense of change is palpable.

“When you look at everything that is going on, he is just one person doing all he could. Even what he has done so far, it has made a difference. I think the climate has improved,” she said.

“I just have the sense that we have a new sheriff in town,” Ivey said.

Alice R. Crites and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

 
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