Prince George's corruption: how it functions and why it persists

Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's County's executive, was arrested Nov. 12 as federal investigators executed search warrants at the County Administration Building. His wife, Leslie Johnson, was also arrested. Each was charged with evidence tempering and destroying evidence.
By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 5:21 PM

As federal prosecutors and a new county executive start trying to clean up corrupt practices that plague Prince George's government and politics, I thought I'd take a step back and look at how the illicit culture functions and why it persists.

To do so, I consulted a half-dozen veteran Prince George's civic players. None would speak for the record, because the matter is so sensitive and public comment could cost them professional associates, clients or even friends. So you'll have to take it from me that the group represents decades of experience in the fields of government, politics, business and law.

Also, since many Prince George's residents believe the media is out to sully their image, I want to stress that I'm not doing this out of malice. I and the people I interviewed want to shine a light on the ailment in order to help cure it.

The mission is to help County Executive Rushern Baker fulfill his goal, described in his inauguration speech Monday, of making Prince George's "first in integrity" in the Washington region.

Based on what I heard from my sources, Baker's got a long way to go.

All of them said matter-of-factly that shady dealings are common in the county. They based that judgment partly on firsthand experience but also on what they'd heard from others. Much of what they described was on the borderline - or across the border -- of illegal behavior; of course that would be for courts to decide.

The sources said questionable trade-offs are especially frequent in the labyrinthine process in which developers must obtain numerous approvals and permits to construct housing complexes or office buildings.

"Everything is politicized, has some price tag every step of the way," a Prince George's lawyer said. "This has made many developers and businesses shy away from the county."

Another lawyer said a typical approach from a politician to a developer would be, "You give money to this civic group that I'm in charge of, and I'll see what I can do about you. Otherwise, your project's not going through." Another is, "You hire my guy to help with community outreach. Then I'll agree to meet with you and move your project," he said.

It's typical for campaign contributions to be requested as a quid pro quo. Sometimes outright payoffs are sought.

The sums of money involved range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A campaign contribution from an individual is usually $4,000. A developer might have to hire a lobbyist to get a politician's support, typically at a cost of $60,000 to $90,000 a year.

In a civil suit filed in the spring, developer Arun Luthra alleged that three different individuals - a real estate broker, a lobbyist and a council member - sought payments or contributions totaling more than $400,000 in exchange for support getting approvals for an office leasing deal at the New Carrollton Metro station. Luthra made a $4,000 donation and hired a lobbyist, but didn't get the deal. The case is still in court.

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