June 30, 2011

LESLIE JOHNSON, the Prince George’s County Council member notorious for stuffing $79,600 of bribe money in her underwear and flushing a $100,000 check down the toilet when the FBI knocked on her door last November, now says she has “accepted responsibility” for her actions. In fact, she has done the opposite.

By insisting on taking the oath of office just weeks after her arrest, and now by her apparent refusal to resign from the council even as she awaits sentencing in October for the federal felony charge to which she pleaded guilty on Thursday, Ms. Johnson is a study in arrogance and unaccountability. Every day that she continues to serve in public office, and every act she discharges in her official capacity, is a disgrace to the County Council, to her constituents and to Prince George’s generally.

It’s hard to overstate Ms. Johnson’s shamelessness and sense of entitlement, or the stain she has left on the county. In a brief statement after her guilty plea — as usual, she took no questions from journalists — she asked not to be defined by what she delicately called her “mistake,” but rather by her “good deeds.” Instead of remorse, she offered conceit and self-importance.

By referring obliquely to her “mistake,” Ms. Johnson evidently hoped to leave the impression that she had committed a discrete act of evidence tampering — a sort of forgivable indiscretion. In fact, as the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, pointed out, Ms. Johnson’s full complicity is revealed in a close reading of the transcript of her panicked phone conversation with her husband, then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson, which was recorded by the FBI on the day of their arrest. (Mr. Johnson, who had already pleaded guilty to corruption charges, is scheduled to be sentenced in September.)

The transcript makes clear that Ms. Johnson knew perfectly well that her husband, the top local official in a jurisdiction of 850,000, was on the take. She knew all about his kickbacks — even about the cash he had stashed in the basement. She suggested flushing the $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet so the FBI wouldn’t find it.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, which the judge may or may not observe, Ms. Johnson faces 12 to 18 months in prison. Although she cannot continue to serve after sentencing, state law does not appear to compel her resignation before then; nor does the council have a way to remove her in the absence of physical or mental incapacity. (The law is silent on the question of ethical incapacity.)

To all appearances, and despite County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s call for her to resign, Ms. Johnson intends to stick around for a few more months — all the while continuing to collect her $96,417 annual salary. That means a special election to replace her is unlikely to be held until early next year. In Prince George’s, the scandal of Jack and Leslie Johnson, like the harm they have done to the county’s reputation, is not finished.