Rushern Baker muddies his ethics message in Prince George's

Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 7:14 PM

RUSHERN L. BAKER III (D), the newly sworn-in Prince George's County executive, took office promising to end the county's pay-to-play culture, and fully cognizant that financial crisis, foreclosures and joblessness have forced painful sacrifices on many of his constituents. That's why his somewhat lavish inauguration last December - largely financed by corporations and individuals with business ties to the county - struck a discordant note, to say the least.

The price tag of Mr. Baker's inauguration, which included three days of festivities culminating in a black-tie ball, was about $525,000, according to an account given by the inauguration chairwoman, Michelle Haywood, to the Prince George's Gazette. Nearly 90 percent of that was paid by corporate and private sponsors; the balance came from 1,000 people who purchased tickets to the ball at $100 and $50 each. In addition, some $43,000 in public funds were spent on Mr. Baker's swearing-in ceremony.

Mr. Baker says the scale of the event was meant to convey that a new day has arrived in Prince George's, whose name has been sullied by pervasive corruption under his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, who now faces federal charges for witness tampering.

But did it really have to be such an expensive day? Baltimore County, whose population is similar to Prince George's, managed to inaugurate a new county executive in December for just $45,000 (roughly divided between public and private funds). In Montgomery County, which is larger than Prince George's, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) was sworn in for a second term at the bargain basement price of $5,000. As it happens, Mr. Baker spent as much on taking office as did the governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley (D), who, mindful that too much glitz might go down poorly these days, scaled back his festivities and halved the $1 million he spent four years ago.

In this region, only D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who spent some $800,000 getting ready to take the city's reins, outdid Mr. Baker in the spending department. But that amount included transition expenses such as paying the salaries of temporary employees and airfare for job candidates flying to and from the District.

To Mr. Baker's credit, all the sponsors of his events have been publicly disclosed. Interested Prince Georgians may note that three trash and recycling companies - whom conjecture leads us to suspect may be competitors for county contracts - each gave around $20,000; and that Southern Management Corp., a large apartment building owner whose chief, David Hillman, has given heavily to Mr. Baker in the past, contributed at least $25,000 to the inaugural shindig.

We take Mr. Baker at his word when he says that ethical reform is among his top priorities, and that the days of pay-to-play in the county are finished. He insists he will not be involved in choosing among contract bids, which is surely a good thing.

Still, he would have reinforced and amplified that very message by announcing from the get-go that he would refuse any largess from all those with current or prospective business with the government he now leads.

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