July 5, 2011

THERE ARE NO major elections in Prince George’s County this fall, but there are two key dates on the political calendar: Sept. 15 and Oct. 13. Those are, respectively, the scheduled sentencing dates for former county executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, soon-to-be-former County Council member Leslie Johnson, whose arrogance, greed and corruption have done lasting harm.

Having pleaded guilty to felony charges, the Johnsons, barring unforeseen events, are likely to be bundled off to federal prison. Then the county’s 865,000 citizens may be able to start putting the ethical wretchedness of the Johnson era behind them.

Mrs. Johnson finally called it quits Tuesday under mounting pressure from her council colleagues, and, by all appearances, against her will. She announced her resignation, effective at the end of this month when the council goes on summer recess. If decency had been a factor, she would never have taken the oath of office in the first place, following the infamous bra-stuffing, check-flushing drama in which she played the co-starring role with her husband shortly after she was elected last fall.

Mrs. Johnson, caught red-handed by an FBI phone tap, signed a guilty plea in March, but she balked at submitting it in court until last week. Even then she seemed intent on clinging to elected office — and the salary that comes with it — until the prison gates clanged shut behind her. Now reality has dawned: The county will not accept the taint of a convicted criminal carrying on in elected office.

Prodded by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who has been understandably eager to put the morass of the Johnson years behind him, all eight of Mrs. Johnson’s County Council colleagues urged her to quit on Tuesday. Commendably, they also stripped her of her staff, county car and cellphone. Apparently, even the ethically obtuse Mrs. Johnson got the message.

Her nearly 100,000 constituents in District 6, and Prince Georgians as a whole, deserve much better. But if county voters want better representation, they will need to insist on it by demanding more of candidates and office holders. Mrs. Johnson won election last fall despite running a campaign devoid of substance, positions or ideas; she didn’t bother to include an issues page on her Web site until very late in the game. That should not have sufficed then; nor should it when a special election is held in a few months to choose her successor.

“The whole world is watching,” Mr. Baker said Tuesday, with only a touch of hyperbole. He was speaking about his cabinet appointments, but the context was clearly the Johnson Affair, which grabbed national headlines, and not of the sort local governments welcome.

Federal prosecutors have done their part by ridding Prince George’s of a pair of corrupt local leaders. Mr. Baker is doing his part by setting a new ethical tone and insisting on better standards of transparency and accountability since taking office in December. Now county voters can do their part by subjecting candidates to real scrutiny and demanding that they display knowledge of the issues and commitment to clean and open government.

Continue reading