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Jack Johnson's arrest rocks Prince George's government workers

By Michael Laris and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

"You pray for them," Shell said. "It's unexpected and something that was never even thought of before as being in the realm of possibility."

Others, though, had braced for such a day.

"Honestly, I'm not surprised," said one county employee who was headed to lunch after getting an e-mail about the arrests. One of his co-workers heard people shuffling around in the office and joked that "we're under siege."

"If you look at the county and where it stands now, do you really see any improvements?" asked the employee, who declined to be named because he feared losing his job. "It's just really sad."

A new county executive, Rushern L. Baker III, ran on a reform platform, and five new county council members, including Leslie Johnson, are scheduled to be sworn in Dec. 6.

Still, many said the county's reputation will suffer reverberations from the allegations for some time.

Baker, a Democrat, chose to stay silent Friday. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) issued a statement saying the events marked a sad day for Prince George's.

Baker's campaign platform pledged to clean up county government, and he often criticized what he said was a culture of cronyism and "pay for play," a reference to allegations that businesses had to make payoffs to get contracts or business deals in the county.

Outgoing County Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) said he wasn't in the office Friday because he and other officials are making the transition out of government. He called the arrests "a complete surprise" and said a search of government offices by federal authorities was troubling. "PG government in total is tainted by the implication," he said.

Trust in government will be damaged regardless of the outcome, Knotts said, but "it'll be a disservice to the citizens" if the arrests are based on "something that is untrue."

"I'm not worried about any accusation until it's proven," he said.

Staff writers Nathan Rott and Akeya Dickson contributed to this report.

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