Jack Johnson's arrest shows development as a blessing and a curse

By Miranda S. Spivack, Ovetta Wiggins and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 12:00 AM

Development deals have been at the center of Prince George's County's most contentious political fights for decades, the source of its highest hopes and deepest embarrassments.

The wins have included luring the Redskins from the District, creating a tourist and shopping destination at National Harbor and, most recently, persuading Wegmans, the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer with a cultlike following, to open a mega-store in a county that has long been shunned by upscale retailers.

But the arrests of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, Leslie Johnson, on Friday as part of a federal probe of political corruption in Prince George's are a reminder that the money swirling around big development deals can be both a blessing and a curse.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post outlining his achievements during his eight years as executive, Jack Johnson said he was "very, very proud" of his development record.

Two weeks later, according to an FBI affidavit, the Johnsons were overheard on a wiretap plotting how to rid themselves of a potentially incriminating $100,000 check from a developer and hide wads of cash totalling $79,600. They could each face 20 years in prison if convicted.

"Upper Marlboro has developed a reputation for having a pay-to-play atmosphere, and you certainly don't hear that about other jurisdictions" in the area, said Joel D. Rozner, a lobbyist and former county zoning counsel, referring to the county seat.

Samuel J. Parker, chairman of the county Planning Board, said control of development has become a source of power. "And that can lead to corruption," he said. "It has."

Officials in the Greenbelt office of U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who brought the charges against the Johnsons, said Friday in court that there is more to come. "The case is likely to expand," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Crowell.

A history of scandal

As early as the 1960s, Prince George's was one of the nation's fastest growing counties. Its population doubled that decade, and county officials rezoned land so thousands of garden apartments could be built to accommodate the suburban boom.

Federal prosecutors and tax officials soon began investigating cozy relationships between Prince George's officials and developers. Jesse S. Baggett, chairman of what was then the Board of County Commissioners, was convicted of accepting favors and gifts, including $3,500 he used to buy a tractor, from a developer seeking his support for rezoning applications.

The zoning scandals of the era prompted hundreds of new development laws and procedures designed to halt abuses and sprawl, to little avail.

The 1980s brought Anthony Cicoria to the County Council. He voted on several projects by a developer with whom he was a partner. Cicoria was convicted of stealing $65,000 in campaign contributions and lying on his state income tax returns, and he lost his bid for reelection to a write-in candidate.

In 1992, after a series of federal corruption investigations, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law barring Prince George's officials from accepting campaign contributions from developers that had pending business with the county. The law was challenged by campaign committees for then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening, and a court overturned it on a technicality.

The law was rewritten, but county officials have used a loophole to get around it, forming slates that can accept money from developers.

Two years ago, the FBI raided the offices of a county developer and two of Johnson's senior aides, as well as the homes of a former council member and a high-ranking official with the county fire department.

According to a source with knowledge of the investigation at the time, the probe centered on a proposed 240-acre project near the Greenbelt Metro station and the Capital Beltway.

Waiting for upscale

In the 1990s, County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), Johnson's predecessor, said that the county had become the dumping ground for cheap housing, and he ushered in a new plan for development. He demanded that builders create upscale homes like those found in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Curry threatened to deny routine water and sewer connections for about a half-dozen residential communities that were at odds with his vision of "executive-style" housing.

Dozens of new developments began to blossom in the central and southern regions of the county. Meanwhile, the county struggled to attract high-end retailers, despite its distinction as the country's wealthiest majority-black jurisdiction.

Seven years ago, when the Boulevard at the Capital Centre opened its doors, residents thought they were embarking on a new era in retail. While the main-street-style mall did not offer the high-end stores that many in the fancy neighborhoods nearby wanted, it at least had some mid-range stores.

But by last year, many of the anchor stores were closed. Crime, including five homicides, were reported. Most of the other retailers that remain sell T-shirts, jeans and cellphones, catering to a young clientele.

Still, residents continued to hold out hope for the county's renaissance. The opening in 2008 of National Harbor, the waterfront development along the Potomac, helped set the stage.

The development, which has swanky shops and condos, is home to one of the largest hotel/convention centers on the East Coast. Disney Resorts plans to build a hotel there, and the National Children's Museum plans to relocate to the development.

Johnson proud of tenure

Johnson has reveled in the completion of Wegmans and National Harbor, which he calls the county's crown jewel.

"I am convinced as I travel the county that people are pleased with my performance, and I leave at a time when they are feeling good about themselves and Prince George's County," Johnson said, sitting ramrod straight in his desk chair as he outlined his successes.

The 75-minute conversation took place in his Upper Marlboro office on Oct. 28. Fifteen days later, Johnson and his wife were arrested and led away in handcuffs. Jack Johnson is being monitored with an electronic bracelet; Leslie Johnson was released on her own recognizance.

County residents were stunned by the news of the Johnsons' arrests.

"I am saddened and very sick. It is very demoralizing," said Geneva Mays, a retired federal worker and organizer of the Prince George's County chapter of Jack and Jill of America. She is a member of the District's Shiloh Baptist Church, which Johnson also attends. "It is important for our children to have role models. It has always been about that. We have worked too hard and come too far to have this kind of thing happen."

Ken Ford, a Boy Scout leader helping his troop collect canned goods at a Capitol Heights shopping center Saturday, said he found the news of the arrests troubling but believed the county would move on.

"My personal feeling is that life does go on and one person doesn't stop a show," he said.

During Johnson's farewell interview with The Post, there was no hint of anxiety or worry about what was coming, even though rumors about a federal probe had swirled around Johnson's administration for several years.

"We are just very, very pleased with what we have accomplished," said Johnson, 61, who previously served eight years as the county's top criminal prosecutor. He summoned a staffer to pull up a "brag board" showing hundreds of organizations he said the county had helped.

"We wanted a clean, beautiful county . . . by any standards that you look at, we are making tremendous progress," he said.

He portrayed himself as working around the clock in the $175,000-a-year job, taking early morning calls from public safety officials after a recent townhouse fire in Suitland that killed a 27-year-old man and trying to ferret out police corruption.

He spoke proudly of his five-year effort to secure a AAA bond rating for the county, enabling the government to borrow money at lower rates, despite critics who said he sacrificed dedicated county staff and cut services to satisfy Wall Street.

Johnson has clashed repeatedly with the County Council and reporters, and he told an audience of 200 at the Wegmans opening last month that those who questioned his spending on business trips did not understand the benefit to the county.

"The idea is that I was in a frolic," he said, referring to his trip to a Las Vegas retail convention at which he met with the developer who built the Wegmans shopping center. "They never talk about the hard floors at the convention that I walked from 8:30 in the morning to 7 at night," he said, as the crowd applauded.

spivackm@washpost.com wigginsovetta@washpost.com morelloc@washpost.com

Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo and staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Henri E. Cauvin, Hamil R. Harris and Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.

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