Task force calls for Prince George’s government watchdog

A task force is urging sweeping changes in Prince George’s County to help it root out public corruption and shed its reputation as a place where companies must “pay to play” to do business in the county.

Members of the Accountability, Compliance and Integrity Task Force, chaired by former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), said Saturday that the county, plagued for years by complaints of government malfeasance, should create an independent government watchdog. The task force also recommended that the county create an anonymous tip hotline, strengthen the ethics board by adding staff and a fixed schedule of meetings, and augment protections for whistleblowers.

The task force was set up by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who campaigned last year on a platform of ridding the county of corruption. During this year’s General Assembly session, Baker won support for new restrictions on local development review and on developer campaign contributions.

“I think the strong message the executive and the County Council would like to hear from us is that . . . we believe it is in the best interest of the county to have an independent inspector general,” said Schmoke, now dean of Howard University Law School.

Baker, who has previously expressed interest in establishing an inspector general’s office, said in a statement Saturday that he was grateful for the panel’s work but would wait to review specifics before commenting further.

County Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) said she, too, would await more details.

“We want to evaluate the full recommendations with a special interest in why an inspector general office is needed as opposed to strengthening audits and investigations or expanding their role,” Turner said in an interview.

The proposals, if adopted by county officials, would add protections beyond those in place in many other local governments in the region and across the country. Few in the area, other than Baltimore, the District and Montgomery County, have their own inspectors general.

The panel did its work with the Nov. 12 arrests of then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, current council member Leslie Johnson (D), as its backdrop. Federal agents alleged the couple was overheard on a wiretap plotting to destroy evidence, including a $100,000 check from a developer, and to hide $79,600 in cash in Leslie Johnson’s bra. Criminal cases against the Johnsons are pending.

The task force said county government should open its inner workings to greater scrutiny so that “transparency [is] an overriding ethos for government operations,” as Schmoke put it.

“Hopefully, what we have done will help the county government advance its cause . . . in promoting openness and integrity in government,” Schmoke said.

Schmoke and other panel members said the proposals would be relatively inexpensive for the cash-strapped county government to implement.

“We think these would be effective in terms of good government and government operations, and we don’t think they will bust the budget,” he said.

The proposals could affect the County Council’s 16-member Office of Audits and Investigations, whose chief, David Van Dyke, and staff members serve at the pleasure of the council. The task force said the office’s “at-will” status could deter it from looking at issues that might embarrass the council.

The task force said the county should examine whether an independent inspector general and an audits chief could be housed within that office, with fixed terms that do not coincide with those of the council. But the panel said it would leave the details to Baker and the council.

The task force expects to complete a draft report in two weeks and post it on its Web site so the public can comment. The final report is expected by the end of May.

In addition to Schmoke, task force members are retired Prince George’s Circuit Court judge William D. Missouri, who serves as vice chairman; Patricia G. Adams, a member of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission; Prince George’s Orphans’ Court Judge Athena Malloy Groves; former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro (D); and local businesswoman Chris Stewart.

Miranda Spivack writes about government and politics in the suburbs, based in the Post’s bureau in Largo in Prince George’s County.
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