To restrain corruption, bring back the honest political boss

The recent death of one-time Prince George’s political power broker Peter O’Malley III, combined with the surge of scandals in that county and the District, prompts me to propose a solution for local jurisdictions troubled by corruption.

Bring back the old-fashioned political boss.

It’s a risky proposition. Power corrupts, and bosses and machines are often synonymous with venality.

But O’Malley, who was “the man to see” in Prince George’s in the 1970s and early 1980s, proved that a tightly run political organization could help keep the sleaze under control. Even a mildly unsavory operation would be an improvement on what we’ve been seeing in Prince George’s and the District recently.

O’Malley, who died last month at age 72, showed that the best kind of boss spreads around enough jobs, campaign cash and favors so supporters needn’t steal. He prized discipline and insisted that his favored candidates follow orders. But he also wouldn’t pick anybody to run who he thought was crooked – partly to ensure that the machine endured.

Outsiders resented O’Malley’s influence, and his law firm and clients made loads of money in the process. Critics grumbled about conflicts of interest. Still, people weren’t going to jail.

Prince George’s would be better off today if such a political operation had been in place to keep Jack Johnson from being elected county executive in 2002. At the least, someone with clout might have pressured Johnson to lay off the bribes once he was in office.

Instead, the county suffered the embarrassment of seeing its former top official plead guilty to two felonies last month in federal court.

In the District, Mayor Vince Gray desperately could use a strong-willed, savvy boss to advise him and run his political operation. In a long career, his ethics had not been seriously questioned until now. His supporters say he wants to do the right thing but is getting lousy advice.

Gray needs somebody who would have realized ahead of time that the new administration couldn’t risk being accused of nepotism by hiring five children of top aides and supporters. Somebody to warn his campaign last summer against getting involved with a rival candidate as volatile and unpredictable as Sulaimon Brown.

Such an operator might also have raised questions about whether a Gray ally, D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., was pocketing public money that was supposed to go to support a kids’ baseball program. (Thomas has denied wrongdoing.)

Gray loyalists complain there’s a leadership vacuum at City Hall. City Administrator Allen Lew isn’t an effective political adviser. Gray still hasn’t picked a new chief of staff to replace Gerri Mason Hall, who took the fall (or tried to) for the initial personnel screw-ups.

“Mayor Gray needs a hard-nosed, tough chief of staff, who will have his best interest as the priority, one who will not be afraid of giving him sound advice, even though [Gray] may fervently disagree,” said Corey Arnez Griffin, a Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, small business owner and Gray supporter.

“The chief of staff should protect the mayor and navigate him through the political minutia, and be his second set of eyes and ears,” Griffin said.

In theory, plenty of watchdogs are protecting the District against corruption. They include the city’s attorney general, inspector general, office of campaign finance, U.S. Attorney’s Office and Congress.

The current spate of scandals, in which nearly half the D.C. Council is under investigation, shows it isn’t enough.

“We’ve got all these different people watching the stables, yet the horses still get out,” former mayor Anthony Williams said.

Of course, Williams and other local leaders have proved that they don’t necessarily need a boss or machine to keep corruption at bay.

No major scandal tainted Williams. Likewise, in Prince George’s, Wayne Curry wasn’t personally implicated in scandal in eight years as county executive before Jack Johnson. The current county executive, Rushern Baker, has put ethics reform high on his agenda.

Even if they might succeed without one, both Baker in Prince George’s and Gray in the District would benefit from having a shrewd, resolute ally to keep the greedy from overstepping the line. Peter O’Malley set the example.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section.
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