In Prince George's, corruption's long shadows

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 20, 2010

If you happen to live in Prince George's County, Fairfax County or let's say, the District of Columbia, and you come into possession of specific and credible information detailing corruption in the upper levels of your local government, would you report it to:

l Your county executive or mayor?

l Your local prosecutor, or in the District's case, the city's attorney general?

l Your council member or any locallegislator?

l The FBI?

l The media? (If yes, which news organization, and why?)

Or would you just keep it to yourself?

(Respondents' identities will be kept confidential.)

How these questions are answered says a great deal about the trust you place in your local officials and the media, and about your confidence in their ability to do the right thing. Your responses also say something about your view of citizenship and violations of the public trust.

Which allows this segue to the widening corruption scandal in Prince George's County.

Once county residents get past the image of Leslie Johnson allegedly flushing a $100,000 check from an unnamed developer down the toilet, and - again allegedly - hiding nearly $80,000 in her bra at the direction of her husband, County Executive Jack Johnson, they should turn their attention to a larger question posed in a recent Baltimore Sun editorial:

How long has the rot been festering, and why has nobody seemed to notice until now?

After all, the corruption scandal has been brewing for some time. Reportedly, the FBI has had Jack Johnson in its scope since January 2006. And the federal probe reaches beyond Mr. Johnson and his wife, who have been charged with evidence tampering and destruction of evidence. Their arrests represent only the tip of the iceberg, federal officials say.

The feds also allege that Langley Park liquor store owners paid bribes to county officials and used county police in a protection scheme involving the transportation and distribution of untaxed alcohol and cigarettes.

Nine people, in addition to the Johnsons, have been arrested, including three county police officers, with promises of more to come.

Prince George's residents should ask why it has fallen to federal authorities to expose corruption in their county. Glenn Ivey, the state's attorney for the county, told me it would be unfair to police and prosecutors to suggest that they weren't doing their jobs unless they had ignored evidence that the Johnsons were taking bribes. While rumors of wrongdoing were heard, Ivey said, he was never aware of someone who could provide information about it. Rumors, he said, don't constitute probable cause, much less proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ivey, a former federal prosecutor, told me that he learned about the investigation the morning the Johnsons were arrested. He said it's better that the feds have the case. They have the resources, and they are immune to charges of partisanship or local score-settling.

The Sun's editorial also asked the whereabouts of the Prince George's County Council, which has a government oversight role to perform. Apparently, the council has decided to go to ground. The Post reports that one veteran council member urged her colleagues to refrain from talking about the scandal to the media because the council should speak with one voice. So with public confidence in government most threatened, the council hunkers down.

And, asked the Sun, "In the case of the alleged untaxed black-market cigarettes and alcohol, where was the state's comptroller's office that's supposed to monitor sales of those commodities?" And the answer from Annapolis is. . .?

Have county politicians and state officials been asleep at the switch or have they simply become inured to the rot and enablers of the corrupt?

And what of county residents? Accounts of lax ethics and graft in the county are hardly top secret. Surely some of them are aware of The Post's investigation of Johnson's first term in office, which found that he had given 15 friends and allies 51 county contracts totaling nearly $3.3 million.

The Post also found that Johnson and several County Council members charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses to their county-issued credit cards, revelations that prompted a state investigation into the spending and a new law requiring audits.

Where was the public outrage? Or have residents resigned themselves to tolerating a little hanky-panky in county government as long as their trash gets picked up, streets get plowed, and their public officials show up at cookouts, cabarets and funerals?

Whatever the reasons, an ethical cloud now blankets Prince George's County. It casts a shadow on everyone.

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