Stopping convicted officials from sticking around

August 27, 2012

THE SCANDAL of former Prince George’s County Council member Leslie Johnson — she of the brassiere stuffed with $79,600 in shakedown cash collected by her husband, former county executive Jack B. Johnson — may have one unintended benefit. If Maryland voters approve a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, a measure inspired by the Johnson travesty, they will bar convicted criminals from continuing to serve in public office after their conviction but before they are sentenced to prison.

It was the Leslie Johnson spectacle that moved state lawmakers to propose the constitutional change. Although Ms. Johnson was caught red-handed by the FBI in October 2010 and pleaded guilty in June 2011 to evidence and witness-tampering, she continued to sit on the council in Prince George’s, Maryland’s second-largest locality. She might have stuck around for months more, until her sentencing last December, had she not at last succumbed to public pressure and resigned in July 2011. She is now serving a year’s term in a federal prison.

It was a disgrace that a convicted felon continued to collect her salary and pose as a legitimate office-holder. But a loophole in state law holds that convictions are not final until a judge passes sentence, so nothing could be done to force her removal from public office.

That led lawmakers to propose closing the loophole. Under their rewrite, elected officials would be suspended from office when they are found guilty and removed from office upon sentencing. Those who plead guilty would be removed from office immediately.

The logic of this change should be apparent. It is ludicrous to suppose that officials convicted for corruption can effectively represent their constituencies, which in Leslie Johnson’s case numbered almost 100,000 residents. By sticking around, whether to collect a salary or defy detractors, they reduce public deliberations to spectacles. By the end, Ms. Johnson, stripped of committee assignments by her colleagues, was an embarrassment to the county.

Maryland’s ballot this fall includes a number of higher-profile measures to be decided by voters — on whether to allow same-sex marriage; expand the state’s gambling program; extend in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants; and approve the state’s congressional redistricting plan. Those are all critical questions, and we’ll have more to say about each of them.

But it would be a pity if the question of removing convicted officials from office were lost in the shuffle, particularly given how often Maryland’s elected officials land themselves in hot water. Even now, a state lawmaker from Prince George’s, Tiffany Alston (D), remains in office despite having been convicted in June on misdemeanor charges of stealing legislative funds. Her sentencing has been postponed, pending a separate trial on charges that she embezzled campaign funds to pay for her wedding.

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