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Sweetheart Deals

County Executive Jack B. Johnson, left, and then-housing chief Thomas M. Thompson confer at the McGuire House razing in February.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson, left, and then-housing chief Thomas M. Thompson confer at the McGuire House razing in February. ( Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Cheryl W. Thompson and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Prince George's County development deals worth millions of dollars have gone to people with ties to County Executive Jack B. Johnson, several of whom received the land at cut-rate prices, had little or no development experience or were given no-bid contracts, according to government records and interviews.

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Since Johnson (D) took office in December 2002, his administration has agreed at least 11 times to sell county-owned land to people with connections to him, including a business partner, a former business partner, a golfing buddy and a campaign contributor who held political fundraisers for him.

Two of those who won contracts had created their development companies weeks earlier. In one case, the development group named in the contract was not incorporated with the state until a month after the deal was signed.

Johnson intervened in two of the deals, in one instance writing a letter that promised financing for a friend who did not have the money to get the project done, records show. Four of the projects were unsolicited or not put out to bid.

Johnson denied that he had been involved in awarding the deals, saying that most had been administered by the county Redevelopment or Housing authorities, which operate independently.

"I have never played any role directly or indirectly in any of these projects," Johnson said in a written statement. "Furthermore, I am personally unaware of any transactions involving these authorities that violated any rules, processes or procedures of the county charter or code, or laws of this state."

Johnson said he has ordered an internal review of the disposition of public land and asked his staff to "develop processes" so that no land will be sold to a for-profit entity without competitive bidding. The review came after Johnson was questioned by The Washington Post about the projects.

The land deals follow a pattern during Johnson's tenure: In his first four years in office, Johnson awarded more than 50 consulting and other contracts to 15 of his friends and political backers and created a dozen high-profile positions that he filled with supporters and fraternity brothers. Records also show that hundreds of thousands of dollars in charity grants from owners of the National Harbor development went to groups associated with Johnson or with those distributing the money, The Post reported last year.

In the case of the surplus land, the developers stand to make millions of dollars when their projects are completed. Most of the projects have stalled, however, as the developers have sought financing, partners and zoning changes or waited for the real estate market to improve.

Because little has been built, there has been little tangible benefit for the county.

"They're giving away the county revenue," said Carolyn Scriber, former director of the agency that handles county-owned property, whom Johnson replaced shortly after taking office. "That doesn't seem like a good deal for the taxpayers."

The sale of public land begins with the county executive, who sends the County Council a list of properties he has determined are no longer needed -- often vacant sites, unused school property or aging public housing. The acreage is a fraction of the land sold in the county on the private market, but the deals are nevertheless significant: "These properties represent an integral part of the revitalization of Prince George's County," the county said in a March 2004 invitation for bids on 11 parcels.


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