Pr. George's ethics panel plans fresh start

January 30, 2011

Even before Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, County Council member Leslie Johnson, were arrested late last year on federal corruption charges, Rushern L. Baker had been railing against pay-to-play government.

Now, Baker (D), who succeeded Johnson (D) as head of the $2.7 billion county government, is taking the first steps toward stamping out corruption and ending backroom deals in the county.

Baker's panel convened Saturday to examine ethics in government, launching an effort that one panel member likened to untying a Gordian knot.

"We have to show people this is really a new direction," said retired Circuit Court judge William D. Missouri, the panel's vice chairman, who used the mythological analogy.

The Accountability, Compliance and Integrity Advisory Board, headed by Howard University Law School Dean Kurt L. Schmoke, a former Baltimore mayor, will examine government procedures, the operation of the county ethics commission and whether a permanent inspector general is needed.

"It is very important that we should focus in on these concerns, not only what is going on, but how citizens feel about what is going on," Schmoke said as the group, which met at Prince George's Community College, considered how to go about its work.

Almost immediately, the panel identified a deficiency that inhibits rooting out waste, fraud and abuse: There is no county hotline for residents and government employees to anonymously report allegations of malfeasance.

Norman Oslik, former co-chairman of Progressive Cheverly, a community group, urged the panel to push for more transparent government - everything from placing more documents online to providing meeting minutes to publishing detailed agendas for county agencies.

"It is the preventative," Oslik said. "An inspector general is already dealing with what has happened. There needs to be more visibility about how government is functioning."

Missouri said residents are more likely to report suspected corruption to the police than try to figure out who in county government might pay attention to their claims.

The County Council has a 16-person office of audits and investigations that looks at government operations. Missouri said the Baker ethics panel needs to examine the staffing and work management of that office and of a separate ethics commission.

"Are they supported? Is there interference in the way they do their jobs?" he asked.

Former County Council member Peter Shapiro (D-Hyattsville), director of the Chesapeake Center for Public Leadership, said the ethics panel needs to be careful not to press for too much regulation, which could deter economic development.

"The flip side is that if we don't find ways to clean things up, then we haven't done our job," he said.

The panel also includes Patricia Adams, a member of the state's Workers' Compensation Commission. Linda Botts, a local businesswoman and former top aide to former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), withdrew from the panel Friday, citing family commitments, Schmoke said. Botts's appointment to the panel had been criticized by some local activists because she had received a no-bid contract shortly after leaving the Curry administration in the mid-1990s. Botts could not be reached to comment.

Baker has also proposed restrictions on the County Council's role in examining development deals, which will be aired in Annapolis at a House delegation hearing Thursday evening.

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