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.
In such a climate, no one was surprised that a federal real estate corruption probe led to the arrests of former county executive Jack Johnson and his wife, new County Council Member Leslie Johnson. The only real source of amazement was that the Johnsons were so clumsy in allegedly flushing a $100,000 check down the toilet and concealing nearly $80,000 in her bra.
A county businessman said there was a "thin line" between soliciting campaign contributions and bribery. Some politicians "do things and want campaign contributions. Others are a little more direct," the businessman said. "I admit I was somewhat shocked by how blatant this [Jackson case] appears to be. I thought the guy was more sophisticated than that."
How did it get so bad? Corruption has been a problem in Prince George's for decades, even as the county has evolved from a mostly rural and working-class white community to become one of the nation's wealthiest black-majority jurisdictions. A notorious case in the 1960s was the conviction of the chairman of county commissioners for taking a tractor as a bribe from a developer.
"We were sort of an old-boy network back in the heyday. Even though the actors changed, the culture remained," a Prince George's elected official said.
Another reason is an informal code of silence, a powerful reluctance to make public anything that would tarnish the image of a county where many residents already feel unfairly denigrated.
"What is endemic to Prince George's politics is this sort of complicity in the sense of, 'I'm not going to tell on you, so you don't tell on me,' " the elected official said.
Finally, the county has lacked an effective watchdog when it comes to ethics. Until now, the U.S. Attorney's office has focused more on the Baltimore region where it's based. The county ethics commission is barely heard from.
Baker, who promised in his campaign to end the "pay to play" culture, plans to create an independent inspector general's office. His supporters express confidence that he'll appoint trustworthy officials and significantly raise expectations for honesty in government.
It can't happen soon enough.