Development money is blessing and curse
Sunday, November 14, 2010
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.