Panel tackles ethics issues as Pr. George’s seeks to shed ‘pay to play’ image

April 22, 2011

The questions make many people in Prince George’s cringe: Is the county government a hotbed of malfeasance? Were the arrests of then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, current County Council member Leslie Johnson (D), an anomaly, or were they the latest chapter in a continuing saga of corruption in Prince George’s?

Since January, a group appointed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has been looking for answers. And now, after a series of public meetings that took testimony from officials, experts and concerned residents, the Accountability, Compliance and Integrity Task Force is to meet Saturday to begin sorting out the recommendations it will make in the coming weeks.

Several prospective changes have emerged so far from the hearings:

l Creating a public watchdog office.

l Setting up an anonymous tip line.

l Examining official spending in real time, not when officials leave office.

l Mandating annual ethics training for all county employees.

l Increasing independence for the county auditor.

Although Baker readily acknowledges that few county workers have done anything worse than misappropriate a government pencil for personal use, he has said the county suffers from a long-standing reputation that to do business in Prince George’s, companies must “pay to play.”

In a recent appearance before the task force, former Prince George’s state’s attorney Glen F. Ivey (D) told the group what it had already figured out.

“I think you have a daunting task ahead of you,” Ivey said.

For Baker, this has been a longtime crusade, and one that he championed during his campaign for executive last year. But in a county sensitive to its reputation, Baker’s efforts have not been universally embraced. Some residents and local politicians have complained that by talking so much about ethics, Baker has left the impression that corruption is widespread among the county’s nearly 6,000 employees.

Nevertheless, Baker has pressed forward, even as he avoids almost any mention of the Johnsons, who were arrested Nov. 12 after federal agents said they heard the couple plotting to destroy evidence, including a $100,000 check from a developer.

Along with creating the accountability task force, Baker turned to the Maryland General Assembly for approval of measures that restrict the ability of his office and the County Council to review developments and to accept campaign donations from developers.

As much as the Johnsons’ arrests have drawn the spotlight, the task force’s discussions have focused on bread-and-butter issues that arise in the daily operations of local governments, such as who is required to file a financial disclosure report.

State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks (D), who was elected in November to succeed Ivey, told the panel that a lack of integrity in government is “systemic,” though it is not limited to Prince George’s.

“There is a mind-set that has existed for a while, not just in this jurisdiction but in others as well, that public officials don’t understand what their role is,” said Alsobrooks, a former top aide to Jack Johnson.

“To some extent, we will benefit from the microscope that people are under now, that this is not acceptable behavior,” she said.

Norman Oslik, a Cheverly resident who has regularly attended task force meetings, said sunshine is the surest solution to the county’s ethical concerns.

“I think the natural mode of government is to be closed unless we make it be open, and when things are closed, that is when problems happen,” said Oslik, a member of Progressive Cheverly, a community group.

The panel — which heard from activists, ethics experts, internal government watchdogs and others from across the region — learned of a number of weaknesses in the Prince George’s government:

l The county lacks a system for regular and timely audits of all county agencies.

l There is little to no regular ethics training for county employees.

l  The county’s ethics commission did not meet in 2010, even though it is required by county law to meet five times a year.

l The county’s handling of workplace complaints such as sexual harassment is inconsistent.

l There is no formal punishment for an employee’s failure to file a financial disclosure report.

l The office that collects county financial disclosure forms and lobbyist registration is staffed part time, does not have the manpower to put the information online and lacks the authority to initiate an investigation or to subpoena records.

l The 16-person office of audits and investigations, headed by David Van Dyke, serves at the pleasure of the County Council, which task force members have said could have a chilling effect on audits of the council or of people with friends on the council.

Ivey said the lack of protocols was confusing and frustrating for government supervisors. Clear-cut criminal allegations could be referred to the U.S. attorney or the state’s public corruption prosecutor, but other concerns often fell into a gray area for which managers had little guidance, he said.

“Sexual harassment, misuse of credit cards, misuse of a county vehicle — where should we go with those issues?” said Ivey. During his tenure, his office, like many state’s attorney’s offices in Maryland, did not prosecute many public corruption cases.

And when it came to training, Ivey said, what was provided was often superficial and irrelevant to his employees. “They viewed it as a trip to the dentist,” he said.

The task force, which does not expect to issue a report until later this spring, is scheduled to meet from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at the Boulevard at Capital Centre, Centreplex Office Building, Executive Dining Room, 821 Capital Centre Blvd. in Largo.

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