Jack Johnson and my secret Prince George's shame

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 7:58 PM

As a resident of Prince George's County, I am so embarrassed by the arrest of County Executive Jack B. Johnson that I don't even want people to know I live there. So I'm looking for a place where citizens aren't shamed by scandal.

Like New Jersey, where an FBI investigation into a money-laundering operation last year netted three mayors, two members of the state legislature, five rabbis, a raft of local officials and a Brooklyn man accused of trafficking in human kidneys.

But you didn't hear a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth echoing along I-95 over that bust.

Not so in Prince George's. Cuff a brother who wears suits and ties in my county and black pride takes a shellacking. In fact, it's as if I'd been shackled, too - me and Jack both being black and all.

"The people are hurt," Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant said last week. "We were the shining example of black intellect and black wealth in the country. Now, the national reputation is based upon disgrace, ineffective leadership and corruption."

That's exactly how I felt the morning after Johnson's arrest. Turned into a numskull overnight, right along with the county's other 835,000 residents - minus the 28 percent who are white, of course, and the 13 percent who are Hispanic, not to mention the 4 percent who are Asian (all numbers based on the latest census).

Might as well flush those college diplomas down the toilet, all you formerly smart black people. Stuff the pay stubs in your bra and make a run for it.

Horse country is beautiful this time of year. Sure, the FBI has a task force examining the influence of private developers on public officials in Loudoun County. The investigations started in 2007 - a year after they kicked off in Prince George's. But you don't see people quaking in their riding boots over it.

In Texas, where former House majority leader Tom DeLay is on trial on money-laundering charges, you don't see a bunch of cowboys sitting around crying in their Lone Star beer.

Even the District has learned to take a federal probe in stride. Allegations of bribery in the taxi industry, irregularities in the way city hall awarded millions of dollars in contracts, millions still unaccounted for in the school budget - all on the FBI radar.

You think D.C. is sweating? The talk of the town is about bringing in four Wal-Mart stores, while all we get in Prince George's is a Wegmans.

Johnson and his wife, Leslie, were arrested Nov. 12 and charged with evidence tampering and destroying evidence as part of a broader corruption probe. According to an FBI affidavit, the former state's attorney was videotaped accepting a $15,000 bribe from a developer and then heard on a bugged cellphone telling his wife - who had just been elected to a seat on the County Council - to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and hide nearly $80,000 in her bra.

I wrote last week that only a nincompoop would do what the FBI said Johnson did, and argued that the arrest must have been a case of mistaken identity. Amazingly, some readers thought I was being satirical.

Let me be clear.

That guy standing next to defense attorney Billy Martin at the post-arraignment news conference: Have you ever seen the tailored Mr. Jack look like that, rumpled and - here's where the shadow of a doubt really grows longer - discolored, even ashen, as if the ghost of FBI stings past had confiscated his facial glow cream?

I rest my case. But the damage has been done.

"Keep your head high, keep your focus on the path to greatness," County Executive-elect Rushern Baker said recently, attempting to soothe us. "We will begin a new government that will keep the promises that we made during the campaign: to make what is a good county a truly great county."

Too late. Black folks have been left holding the bag of shame once again.

"They are also angry," said Grant, the Seat Pleasant mayor. "They are angry at the investigators and the timing."

It's an outrage. How does the FBI expect me to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner when they are trying to make us look like turkeys?

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