Prince George’s County hates its reputation as a place that tolerates public corruption. Now it has an excellent opportunity to do something dramatic and memorable to help dispel that ugly image.
The county should build a bonfire of public outrage under County Council member Leslie Johnson to make it intolerable for her to remain in office even for another day now that she has pleaded guilty to a federal felony.
The Mitchellville Democrat hopes to continue drawing her $8,000 monthly salary at least until the judge sentences her Oct. 13. Apparently the law provides no realistic way to force her out before then.
An upsurge of collective wrath might do the job. It would also send a much-needed message that Prince George’s will no longer shrug off official malfeasance on grounds that “everybody does it” or that the media are exaggerating the problem.
The rest of the council should make the point as strongly as possible that Johnson must resign. It could meet with Johnson personally to tell her, send a letter, or pass a resolution — or all three. Other politicians, civic leaders, business owners, union heads, pastors and ordinary citizens should unite in insisting that she go.
Regrettably, some of the county’s political leadership seems to be lagging behind public opinion in seeing the importance of driving her out.
Although County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and four council members have called on Johnson to resign, the other four council members (other than Johnson) haven’t yet told the voters what they think.
The four mum officials, all Democrats, are Chairman Ingrid Turner (Bowie) and members Karen Toles (Suitland), Obie Patterson (Fort Washington) and Andrea Harrison (Springdale),
The four can hardly claim that the guilty plea surprised them. Anyone paying attention knew Johnson was scheduled to appear in court Thursday and was universally expected to acknowledge her wrongdoing.
As expected, she formally admitted that she flushed a $100,000 check down a toilet and concealed $79,600 in cash in her underwear when FBI agents knocked on her front door last autumn. Johnson, a lawyer and former administrative law judge, was trying to conceal bribe-taking by her husband, former county executive Jack Johnson (D). He pleaded guilty to two felonies in May.
The response was especially lame from Turner, a political ally of Leslie Johnson and fellow member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Turner released a bland, legalistic statement indicating that she expected Johnson to stay in office right up until she begins serving her sentence.
The public is not nearly as charitable, according to interviews Friday with county residents shopping at Mitchellville Plaza on Central Avenue. The overwhelming opinion there was some variant of “don’t do the crime if you won’t do the time,” so Johnson should resign immediately.
“It’s really an insult to the people of Prince George’s. She’s thumbing her nose at them, saying, ‘Yes, I did it, but I’m going to stay until my case comes up,’ ” said Bowie resident Syreeta McArthur, 31.
Elisha Saunders, 30, of Upper Marlboro was upset that her fourth-grade daughter had been photographed with Johnson on the first day of school in August at Barack Obama Elementary. “I took the pictures down off the Web because I didn’t think it was appropriate after what she [Johnson] has done,” Saunders said.
The county shouldn’t be paying Johnson anymore, Saunders added, because “why should she get more money after she took it illegally?”
The council members who haven’t yet declared their views on Johnson might be delaying because they mistrust talking to the media or don’t want to offend a fellow council member whom they like personally.
Will Campos, a Hyattsville Democrat who has urged Johnson’s resignation, said she “is a nice person. We do get along with her. It’s tough to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go,’ to somebody you see on a daily basis, but unfortunately, that’s the nature of this business.”
The council needs to put the county’s interests ahead of personal loyalty. It should listen to U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein, whose office successfully prosecuted the Johnsons. He urged Prince George’s to create “a new era” where public officials weren’t seen as open to receiving bribes and businesspeople didn’t feel compelled to offer them.
“Federal prosecutors alone are not going to solve corruption problems,” Rosenstein said. “Our hope is that this case will not only demonstrate our commitment to fighting corruption when it occurs, but also will spur positive changes so we won’t see corrupt schemes emerge.”
Public humiliation of Leslie Johnson, sufficient to force her from office before the law technically requires, should be an important step in that direction.