Get Rich Quick!

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

TO THE REGION'S roster of august centers of learning and knowledge, add another: the Prince George's County government. Guided by the profligate spending habits and unchecked power of County Executive Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's has devoted a few million dollars to commissioning reports on weighty topics such as trends in "regional, national and global economics." Indeed, the county's government might soon rival Washington's great think tanks were it not for a few differences. Namely, that these reports -- slender, overpriced and generally unread -- are a joke, their contents unavailable to county taxpayers, who paid for them. And unlike studies published by the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation, say, many of the Prince George's reports are the work of non-experts whose only pertinent qualification is that they are cronies, campaign contributors or former aides to Mr. Johnson. Call them Friends of Jack's.

In a revealing story Sunday, The Post's Cheryl W. Thompson and Ovetta Wiggins detailed the farcical insider game that passes for contracting in Prince George's. Mr. Johnson, treating the public's money as if it were his own pocket change, lavishes it on no-bid contracts for FOJs. One FOJ, a financial backer named Wilbert R. Wilson, a former sixth-grade teacher, got $200,000 to "evaluate" economic trends, but there is no evidence to date that he submitted a report, as required. Another FOJ, David M. Valderrama, rendered a seven-page treatise on school construction, a subject about which he was wholly uninformed when he was selected to receive two contracts worth $106,000.

The FOJs, Mr. Johnson insists, are smart people. But if they were really smart, they might have the ethical sense to know that they were on the receiving end of what amounts to a slush fund controlled by Mr. Johnson. Instead, the FOJs exhibit a sordid sense of entitlement. "If you were in Jack's shoes, would you award contracts to your enemies?" asked Mr. Valderrama. "Politics is politics."

Mr. Johnson may not be the first Prince George's county executive to engage in this practice, but by expanding it he calls into question his own commitment to the county, for he only enhances the its reputation for wasteful, corrupt government. And the failing here is not Mr. Johnson's alone; what kind of County Council cannot be bothered to oversee contracts, among the most basic functions of government? The council should enact legislation granting itself that oversight authority, ensuring that the county receives good value for its money and providing for some basic measure of accountability -- for starters, by making publicly funded reports publicly available.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company