November 28, 2012

A NOTABLE FACT amid the barrage of scandals that beset Prince George’s County in recent years is that so few of them were uncovered by those inside the county itself. No whistleblowers came forward. Few employees came clean by their own volition. The county’s own Office of Audits and Investigations was a non-player.

Rather, the pandemic of corruption in the administration of former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who left office in disgrace, was unearthed by the FBI, federal prosecutors and the media, including this newspaper.

Mr. Johnson and a number of his associates are now in prison, and that surely has had the salutary effect of signaling to county employees, and those who work with them, that skimming, self-dealing and graft will not go unpunished. Still, Mr. Johnson’s successor, Rushern L. Baker III (D), was right to campaign two years ago on a platform that emphasized tougher ethics laws and, specifically, the creation of an independent inspector general’s office to root out public wrongdoing.

Now, after protracted negotiations with county lawmakers, Mr. Baker’s initiative is bearing some fruit. Even in the face of flat revenue and extremely tight budgets, Prince George’s is setting aside a half-million dollars to beef up a fledgling ethics office by hiring two investigators and, it is hoped, an aggressive director with a law enforcement background. In addition, there is money to hire a new special prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s Office, who is to focus on public-sector fraud.

It’s a modest beginning. And it came in the face of pushback from some members of the County Council, who took the curious position that the scandals that seized Prince George’s for much of the past decade had nothing to do with them.

True, a new council was elected along with Mr. Baker in 2010. It is undoubtedly an improvement over the last crew, which included a number of ethically challenged and blatantly corrupt members. But the problems in Prince George’s were not just the product of a few rotten apples. They were deep-rooted. That’s why no whistleblowers came forward. And that’s why the county desperately needs, even now, an institutional response to what became an institutional problem.

Mr. Baker got an early start in tackling the problem by establishing a CountyStat program to measure the performance of government agencies using well-defined and publishable metrics. Now, with the council’s approval, he has won a green light to set up a more muscular office focused on ethics and accountability. While the council balked at establishing a position called inspector general, Mr. Baker insists that function, not nomenclature, is the key.