Prince George's ethics bill receives key approval from House delegation

State lawmakers from Prince George’s have approved new ethics rules that seek to limit the influence of developers on county officials in a community still reeling from corruption charges against former county executive Jack B. Johnson.

In a series of moves capped by a key vote Friday, county members of the General Assembly delivered a stern message about the need to rid Prince George’s of its reputation for corrupt land-use and development dealings. The measure would apply only in Prince George’s and does not affect members of the General Assembly, which sparked tensions among local officials and led to suggestions that state lawmakers should also scrutinize their own campaign finance practices.

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Under a bill approved Friday by the county’s House delegation, County Council members and the county executive would be barred from acting on development proposals if they are on political slates that accepted donations from the developers.

The measure, similar to a proposal originally submitted by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), had earlier been endorsed by the county’s Senate delegation and is likely to be approved by the General Assembly.

“Today’s actions are a good-faith effort to our citizens and the entire region and the business community at large that our county is committed to wholesale changes in the political culture,” said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George’s), who shepherded the bill through the House delegation.

Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House delegation, said the legislation is a strong sign that “there is a new day in Prince George’s.” But she said she worried that the measure could stall the development-approval process if a majority of the nine council members are on affected slates and can’t cast votes.

Earlier this month, Prince George’s House and Senate delegations approved a bill that would limit the council’s ability to delay development approvals. It also limited county credit card use and strengthened the county’s ethics commission.

And a special panel convened by Baker, and chaired by former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), is holding a series of meetings, including one Saturday at Prince George’s Community College, to examine ethics practices in county government.

While the county’s “pay to play” reputation has been around for decades, that image was compounded last year by charges against Johnson (D) and his wife, County Council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville).

Federal prosecutors allege they conspired to hide $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson’s underwear and to flush a $100,000 check from a developer down a toilet.

Jack Johnson was indicted in February on bribery and other charges, and is accused of accepting more than $200,000 in bribes from a developer. He has pleaded not guilty. Leslie Johnson was arrested in November on charges of witness and evidence tampering. On Friday, prosecutors filed papers linked to those charges.

Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George’s) said lawmakers needed to act. “It’s all about perception. If the public respects us, then we are doing a good job. If the public thinks we are crooks and criminals, we are doing a lousy job.” She said the council should have taken strong steps on its own but did not, leaving an opening for the General Assembly to step in.

The bill approved Friday would apply only to Prince George’s County, which troubles some local lawmakers who say that the county is being singled out for special scrutiny and that campaign finance changes are needed throughout the state.

“We need to look statewide at campaign finance,” said Del. Tiffany T. Alston (D), who along with Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D) voted against Friday’s bill. Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D) abstained.

Prince George’s council members are already barred from receiving developer contributions directly. But in recent years, many have received developer donations because they were members of slates, large groups of candidates who band together, that accepted the contributions.

State lawmakers, who act on a range of environmental and regulatory issues of interest to developers but do little direct review of developments, are barred from taking campaign funds from anyone during the annual 90-day legislative session. Before and after the session, they can accept campaign donations.

The County Council’s chairman, Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), and vice chairman, Eric Olson (D-College Park), had worked vigorously to oppose the campaign finance measure. They had struck a compromise with Baker, who supported their desire to allow council members to vote on a development, even if their slate had accepted donations from a developer with a pending application, if the project was not in their district.

But the county’s Senate delegation rebuffed the agreement, and a House delegation committee followed suit Wednesday, leading to Friday’s House delegation vote.

“The County Council worked hard to put together a legislative package we thought improved county government and increased transparency,” Turner said. “We are disappointed our legislators in Annapolis did not work together with us on this initiative, on issues that have targeted the county and the County Council.” She, too, said she hoped there would be a renewed push for statewide campaign finance reform.

Baker, in a statement Friday that did not directly address the vote, said he was grateful to the delegation and the council for their “passion, collaboration and cooperation.”

Council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel), who said her campaign takes little money from developers, said many members viewed the bill as a General Assembly power grab that would do little to affect ethics but would allow state lawmakers to gather campaign contributions and leave council members off their slates.

“It is so far from being about ethics, and so much more about consolidation of power,” she said.

 
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