The Leslie Johnson problem

Monday, November 22, 2010

UNLESS SHE strikes a plea deal with prosecutors in the next two weeks, it appears there is no legal way to block Leslie Johnson from being sworn in and taking her seat on the Prince George's County Council on Dec. 6. Her inauguration would be a further embarrassment for a county stung by the federal charges against Ms. Johnson, wife of outgoing County Executive Jack B. Johnson. Those allegations include destroying and concealing evidence by flushing a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet and stuffing $79,600 in cash into her bra as FBI agents knocked on the door of her home Nov. 12.

Ms. Johnson is innocent until proven guilty. But we hope that she won't seek to use her council seat as a bargaining chip with prosecutors or allow her case to become a distraction to the incoming county government. It would be in the county's interest for her to give up the post.

If she does not, it appears that she could play the role of kingmaker on the nine-member council by casting a decisive fifth vote in favor of electing incumbent member Ingrid Turner as the next council chair. In return for her support, Ms. Turner had been widely believed to have promised Ms. Johnson the chairmanship of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, the most powerful of the council's five standing committees.

Now, following the Johnsons' arrest and indictment, Ms. Turner says that she will not appoint Ms. Johnson to chair the panel. But she has not ruled out naming her as a member of the committee, which reviews rezonings and other land-use applications from developers.

Ms. Johnson would wield immediate clout by, for example, being able to vote in a critical dispute over setting storm water runoff regulations - which would be crucial in balancing developers' profits and the environment. How confident can Prince George's residents be that Ms. Johnson will put the county's interests ahead of her own on that or any other decision? Given recent events, the reasonable answer is: not very.

Rushern L. Baker III, the county executive-elect who is also to be sworn in Dec. 6, represents a new day for Prince George's. He has a reputation as a straight shooter, and he campaigned on a platform of clearing the taint from the county's name.

Mr. Baker appears to be trying to walk a fine line between emphasizing his commitment to good government while showing he feels Prince Georgians' pain over the latest events and trying not to give offense to the Johnsons' remaining supporters, who are numerous. That may be understandable in the short run. But if Mr. Baker is to make good on his campaign pledges and realize his promise, he should not wait too long to push concrete measures that illustrate that his pronouncements about cleaning up government in Prince George's are more than rhetoric.

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