Echos of Jack Johnson
By Colbert I. King,
Do we have budding Jack Johnsons in D.C. City Hall?
In case you somehow missed it, Johnson is the former Prince George’s County executive who is expected to return to government service, involuntarily and for a long time because of things he did, and the one thing he failed to do, while on the public payroll.
Johnson did not work for the people of Prince George’s County honestly. Instead, he chose to engage in an extortion and bribery conspiracy related to the performance of his official duties, to which he pleaded guilty in federal court last month, and for which he is going to prison.
Johnson may be best known for his colloquy with his wife, Leslie, who, on Nov. 12 advised him by phone that FBI and IRS agents were ringing the doorbell:
Jack Johnson: “Put [the money] in your bra and walk out or something with it. I don’t know what to do with it. Um. . .”
Leslie Johnson: “Whatta you want me to do with the check? You hear ’em banging?”
Jack Johnson: “Tear up the check and . . . um . . . and um . . . tear it up . . . Just . . . just tear it up.”
Are some in the District following in these footsteps? Consider fundraising ethics.
Prince George’s developer Patrick Q. Ricker, a Johnson associate, pleaded guilty in 2009 to conspiring to commit honest services fraud, making false statements and tax evasion.After Johnson’s guilty plea, the Justice Department revealed that Ricker had told authorities that state officials concealed items they received from him by misrepresenting their nature and value.
Ricker also said he concealed campaign contributions to officials that were greater than legal limits by using conduits and in-kind contributions.
“Specifically, Ricker admitted,” a Justice Department news release said, “that he recruited ‘straw donors,’ including family members and employees, to make . . . campaign contributions with funds provided by or reimbursed by Ricker and his co-conspirators.”
“Ricker also provided in-kind contributions to conceal the actual amount of his campaign contributions, such as campaign signs, food, alcohol and the administrative services of the employees and family members,” it said.
Any of that sound familiar, D.C.?
Recall this week’s sworn testimony of the mercurial Sulaimon Brown before the D.C. Council’s hapless government operations committee. Brown said he received cash and money orders from people associated with Vincent Gray’s mayoral campaign as payments for disparaging then-Mayor Adrian Fenty during last year’s campaign. Recall, too, the Post story last Monday by Nikita Stewart that reported that Brown campaign records listed alleged contributors who claimed to have not known how their names got in Brown’s reports. “Straw donors,” anyone? Prince George’s County comes to the District?
No? What about council Chairman Kwame Brown’s 2008 reelection campaign? According to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, the Brown campaign failed to account for more than a quarter of a million dollars in donations and expenses and used a now-defunct political consulting firm to pass $239,000 to a firm operated by his brother.
Johnson pleaded guilty to extortion “under color of official right.” That means that Johnson, as a public official, conspired to obtain money not due to him or his office and that the person who gave it to him did so because of the power of Johnson’s office.
The notion of a public official obtaining payment to which he is not entitled by virtue of his office brings to mind D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan’s civil enforcement action against council member Harry L. Thomas Jr.
This week, Nathan alleged that District funds provided by the council to the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. were, “at Mr. Thomas’s direction, passed . . . to the Langston 21st Century Foundation, which in turn, at Mr. Thomas’s direction, secretly paid most of the money to Mr. Thomas through his for-profit and non-profit corporations.”
Nathan alleges that Thomas made false statements, conspired with others to commit fraud “and was unjustly enriched” to the tune of more than $300,000.
Harry Thomas, Kwame Brown and Vincent Gray, I should note, have publicly denied any wrongdoing. But I’m not ready to swear that the District has honest government.
Not when the city, until recently, tolerated a system in which the interplay of earmarks and campaign contributions fostered the notion that pay-to-play was the name of the game.
I can’t declare that the District has a culture of integrity. Not when the Office of Campaign Finance is investigating whether council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) treats her constituent services funds, which are fueled by private donations and are intended for residents’ needs, as slush funds for political and personal matters. (Alexander responded to the allegations in a letter to her constituents, saying she plans to “keep doing the real work of Ward 7.”)
We may be already in Jack Johnson’s world.