Officials Provide New Details About Johnson's Trip to Africa

Jack B. Johnson returned home last week.
Jack B. Johnson returned home last week.
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson addressed the American Chamber of Commerce in Senegal, met with a Senegalese university president and attended a trade show in Cameroon with 3,000 international businesses during his recent trip to Africa, county officials said this week.

Johnson (D) also met with U.S. ambassadors to Senegal and Cameroon and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cameroon Chamber of Commerce designed to encourage trade between Prince George's and the African nation.

County officials released a two-page memo Thursday detailing Johnson's trip to the two nations, hoping to answer questions that have arisen since he left for Africa on Dec. 1. They offered a vigorous defense of the trip and maintained that coverage of it has been unfair.

Johnson returned last weekend. This week, he canceled a scheduled interview with The Washington Post in which he was to discuss the trip.

According to the memo, Johnson was accompanied to both countries by five county employees: his chief of staff, a special assistant, two media information officers and a security guard. After visiting Senegal, the group went to Cameroon and was joined by four members of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corporation, a not-for-profit agency, partially funded by the county government, designed to spur business.

County officials said they would not be able to provide an accounting of how much the county spent on the trip until Dec. 29, after bills have been "reconciled." Spokesman James Keary confirmed that county taxpayers will pay at least part of the cost.

Keary said the trip resulted in important face-to-face meetings that will bring new business to the county and expand the tax base. He noted that a deal to bring a long-sought Wegmans grocery store to the county was struck after Johnson attended a trade conference in Las Vegas.

"Whether it's Las Vegas, Chicago or Senegal, he's working to bring jobs here and new business to Prince George's," Keary said.

The new information did little to quiet those who have questioned whether a trip to Africa was a good use of funds when county employees have been forced to take two weeks of unpaid leave to close a budget shortfall. Johnson told lawmakers at a recent closed-door meeting that an even larger shortfall looms next year.

"As recently as a few weeks ago, we were given a doom-and-gloom report on county finances, including the possibility of significant layoffs," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). "If that's true, its hard to reconcile a large contingent of county employees being sent to Africa, paid for by county money."

A senior aide to Johnson has said that even at the top levels of government, some of Johnson's staff workers did not know he was traveling to Africa until he had left. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Keary said he did not believe that account and rejected the notion that there has been any mystery surrounding Johnson's trip.

On Thursday, Keary released a video of Johnson speaking at a breakfast for business leaders in November, where the executive said he would lead a trade mission to Africa "in a few short weeks." Keary also provided an itinerary for the trade mission that had been distributed in November by the county's federally funded Africa Trade Office.

Vince Canales, president of the Fraternal Order of Police local, questioned why county officials were unable to answer basic questions about the trip for more than a week if information was readily available. "If there is nothing wrong with what they're doing, they should be readily able to answer any question that any citizen in this county would ask," Canales said.

Keary has said he could not release information about details of the trip -- including which countries, other than Cameroon, Johnson would visit, how much the trip cost and which employees took part -- while the trip was underway because the only employees with access to such information were traveling in Africa and could not be reached by phone or e-mail. He had said Johnson would answer all questions about the trip upon his return.

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