Prince George's must talk straight about corruption after Jack Johnson's arrest

Prince George's County Executive-elect Rushern L. Baker III held a news conference at the county's school board headquarters in Upper Marlboro, three days after the arrest of County Executive Jack Johnson.
By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:34 PM

In discussing Prince George's County's corruption problem, everybody from politicians to the media likes to hide behind the euphemistic word "perception."

There's a "perception" that developers have to make payoffs to get zoning permits. A "perception" that you have to hire a relative, friend or other associate of a County Council member or agency official to get things done. A "perception" that even some police officers are in on the scams.

In the wake of last week's dramatic arrests of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, council member-elect Leslie Johnson (D), it's time to start speaking plainly. The problem isn't just perception. It's reality. Regardless of how the Johnson case ends, I've heard too many complaints about Prince George's from business people and politicians to think otherwise.

Moreover, the reality isn't going to change until leaders who genuinely want reform find the courage to acknowledge - explicitly and forcefully - that an illicit culture exists and that ending it is a top priority.

Unfortunately, such straight talk has mostly been missing in county political leaders' initial responses to the Johnsons' arrests. That's true even for longtime clean-government advocates such as incoming county executive Rushern Baker (D), who takes office Dec. 6. He has tried to minimize the importance of the Johnson case and has emphasized instead the need to focus on jobs, health care, schools and other issues.

That might seem odd, considering that ethics reform was a central plank in Baker's campaign platform. Wouldn't he want to use this opportunity to deliver a spirited call to clean house? It's hard to imagine a more relevant occasion. The county's No. 1 official was just led away in handcuffs after the FBI said it recorded him urging his wife to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and hide nearly $80,000 in her brassiere.

But Baker's reticence is not a surprise to people who know Prince George's well. His reaction reflects a familiar dynamic: The county is so sensitive and defensive about its image that it refrains from talking about real problems for fear of calling attention to them.

This need to stress the positive was evident in the news release Baker issued Monday in his first public comment on the arrests. He didn't use the word "corruption" or "ethics" or "scandal." He didn't mention the Johnsons by name, referring only to "the alleged acts of a few."

Instead, the statement consisted mainly of high-minded appeals to Prince George's residents not to be discouraged. "Keep your head high so you can see further down the path to greatness," it said.

Neither Baker nor 21 other top county officials and legislators would elaborate at a news conference Monday at the Board of Education headquarters in Upper Marlboro. They all agreed not to talk to the news media afterward.

Tuesday, under intense pressure from the media to say more, Baker went a bit further in television interviews. He reiterated his campaign calls to create an independent inspector general's office to keep county government honest. He said his administration will not accept a "pay to play" culture.

Still, he was at pains to say that his proposed reforms were not triggered by the Johnson case arrests and that he was concentrating more on "kitchen table" issues than on corruption.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company