Jack Johnson's arrest rocks Prince George's government workers
Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:30 PM
When federal agents swooped in to arrest one of the most powerful couples in Prince George's County on Friday, they marred what had promised to be a clean transition: County Executive Jack Johnson's departure from office and the swearing-in of his wife, Leslie, as a new council member next month.
The arrests also left many who work in the multi-billion-dollar enterprise that is the Prince George's County government jarred and uncertain.
Some officials said they could never have imagined such a day could come, while others said they expected it. They pledged to focus on serving the county's more than 800,000 residents.
But questions remained: How much will the pall of scandal color perceptions about, and the effectiveness of, a local government with broad responsibilities over everything from development decisions to tax rates?
State elections officials said there are no state laws that would prohibit Jack Johnson from returning to his county offices to serve out the final weeks of his term or prevent Leslie Johnson from being sworn in early next month, as planned.
But state officials noted that if Leslie Johnson were to be convicted of a felony, she would not be eligible to remain in office.
"I'm innocent of these charges," Jack Johnson said Friday night. "I just can't wait for the facts to come out."
In government offices earlier Friday, officials who had worked under Johnson for years were struggling to process the magnitude - personally and politically - of the unfolding events.
"It's horrific," said Donald Shell, who was interviewed by Jack Johnson for his job as chief of the Prince George's County Health Department and has worked with him for years. "It's like seeing somebody in a horrible car accident. You just have to wait and see how they do as a result of the accident. . . . It's the surprise, and the reality, that this is going to have some impact.
"You feel for the individual as a person, aside from their role in their job."
But Shell said the county government is organized with multiple layers of authority so that people up and down the line can continue to do crucial jobs even in difficult circumstances.
"We'll do our work. Running the government goes on," Shell said. But that work will be done in a context of "emotional turmoil and pain," he added.