Scandal elicits little comment
Friday, November 19, 2010
The phones are quiet. The hallways are nearly vacant. Many elected officials remain behind guarded doors, and those who are not in their offices are difficult to locate.
A week after the arrests of Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, Leslie Johnson (D), on charges of evidence tampering and destruction of evidence, normally tight-lipped county elected officials are more reclusive than usual.
Almost in unison, they have declined to answer questions from reporters about the allegations that the Johnsons couple plotted to flush a $100,000 check from a developer and conceal $79,600 in Leslie Johnson's bra - or about the impact of the charges on the transition to a new government.
One County Council veteran even urged her colleagues in a private e-mail to refrain from talking to the media because the council should speak with one voice. Instead, there has been almost no voice.
"If you walk through here, you could hear a pin drop. It's like somebody died," said a county official who did not want to be identified because of the nature of the charges against the Johnsons. "It's like after an election when someone has lost. It's when people realize you don't have any more juice, and you can't help them."
Some of that is attributable to a government in transition that on Dec. 6 will have a new county executive, Rushern L. Baker III (D), and five new council members.
The handoff of power would be challenging under normal circumstances, but it has grown much more complicated as Baker's team seeks details about the finances of the $2.6 billion county government from the departing Johnson administration. Meetings are being canceled or delayed; a county bond offering was postponed early this week, and officials are sorting out what they can do without Johnson's approval.
The somber mood is palpable in Upper Marlboro, where public efforts are underway to persuade Leslie Johnson, who was elected to the council, to skip taking the oath of office Dec. 6, and where Jack Johnson's community relations manager is assuring sometimes frantic residents that the government is open - and that, yes, they still need to pay their taxes.
"I don't want to sit here and pretend," said Chris Osuji, a Johnson political appointee.
"On the first day, anyone who says he wasn't freaked out is a liar," he said. But this week, he urged his staff to stay focused. "We have to move on. That's the way life works."
But the collective silence of many county leaders has made some politicians uncomfortable.
At least four members of the nine-member incoming County Council - Andrea Harrison (D), who is seeking the chairmanship; Mel Franklin (D), Mary Lehman (D) and Eric Olson (D) - are quietly seeking support from others to dissuade Leslie Johnson from taking the oath of office.