What's behind the corruption in Prince George's County? In part, residents' apathy.

By Lee Hockstader
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 8:00 PM

What's the matter with Prince George's County?

That question has been asked incessantly in the five weeks since the FBI arrested then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson along with his wife, Leslie, who famously had almost $80,000 stuffed in her bra when the feds came calling.

Plenty has been said on the subject, with speculation trained on the coziness of politicians and developers; the pay-to-play tactics of the County Council; the habitual cronyism of elected officials; and the stupidity of the Johnsons themselves.

Here's what's missing from those diagnoses: the staggering apathy of Prince George's County residents. The problem wasn't just that sleaze was tolerated but also that everyone knew about it, or could have known, and relatively few cared.

Last summer, I interviewed all but one of the 40-odd candidates running in the Democratic primary for county council, including Leslie Johnson, and asked them all about ethics.

The results were striking. Only about a third of the candidates seemed upset about the county's notoriety for corruption and fast-and-loose dealings. Another third seemed barely aware that there was a problem. Others, including a few who went on to win their elections, denied or questioned the premise of my question, insisting that reports of corruption in the county were untrue, overstated or unfair.

This was despite reams of reports, in The Post and elsewhere, about elected officials' blatant misuse of county-issued credit cards; fat, no-show contracts for the politically connected; a multimillion-dollar slush fund containing public dollars controlled by Jack Johnson; and shady land deals for developers with friends in high places. And despite the FBI and federal prosecutors having made no secret of their interest in questionable dealings by elected officials and having executed search warrants in the county government building. And despite Prince George's lively rumor mill, which for years had buzzed about the sleaze in Upper Marlboro.

A number of candidates said that journalists had harped on the county's seedy side, while disregarding the good news in Prince George's. This remains a common refrain, even with the county's former top official facing prison time. In fact, as the Johnsons' arrest and the FBI charges have made painfully clear, the news reports and rumors may have understated the ethical morass.

It's not just that relatively few candidates were concerned enough or equipped to talk about ethics; many were unable to speak knowledgably about any issue - education, public safety, transportation, the lack of good jobs. A number of them had no Web site or, like Leslie Johnson, had Web sites that omitted any mention of critical issues facing Prince George's. (Shortly before primary day, she did add an issues page to her site.) Some candidates were taken aback when asked what they wanted to achieve on the council; they appeared never to have thought of public service in those terms.

I asked a prominent figure in the county about this, and he gave me a candid diagnosis. "Politics in Prince George's is all about touch," he said. "Candidates don't have to talk about issues, and voters don't expect it from them. All they want to know is, 'Is this guy like me? Does he go to my church? Have I met him? Do I know people who know him?' That's it."

Prince George's, of course, is not unique in this regard. Plenty of localities have distracted electorates and weak political cultures, and plenty of American voters are more interested in politicians' glad-handing acumen than their policy pronouncements.

Nonetheless, that's not a prescription for efficient, clean and able government. If voters ask or expect so little of candidates, setting the bar that low for officials, then no one should be surprised when crooks and con artists win elections. And let's be blunt: Not only has Prince George's had more than its share of crooked politicians, it also has continued to elect and even reelect them.

There are hopeful signs. Some bright, serious and dedicated public servants have been elected to the all-Democratic County Council, including newcomer Mel Franklin, formerly a lawyer in the Maryland attorney general's office, and Eric Olson, a respected incumbent who is the council's new vice chairman.

The new council chairman, Ingrid Turner, has studiously avoided commenting on the Johnsons' failings and the county's broader problems of ethics. But she did deny Leslie Johnson a seat on any council committee - a symbolic and appropriate act of censure.

And Rushern L. Baker III, the newly elected county executive, is clearly made of different stuff from Johnson. Both as a state lawmaker a decade ago and as a candidate for county executive, Baker has made it clear that open, accountable and competent government will be priorities.

If he follows through on those promises, there may be a new day in Prince George's. A more inclusive and transparent government could encourage a spirit of engagement among residents who, alienated by cronyism and corruption, have averted their eyes from the rot.

Along with the council, Baker can lead, but he cannot reform the county single-handedly. Ultimately it will be up to Prince George's residents - silent and passive bystanders for too long - to insist on better governance.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

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