In Prince George's, a challenging time for Johnson's successor

Leslie Johnson, who is charged with witness tampering and destruction of evidence, takes the oath of office as a member of the Prince George's County Council.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 7:16 PM

Barely three weeks before Rushern L. Baker III was to be sworn in as Prince George's County executive, the first shock wave hit: The man he would succeed, Jack B. Johnson, and his wife, Leslie, were arrested on federal corruption charges.

The string of bad news continued. After taking office Dec. 6, Baker (D) discovered a $77 million budget deficit that Johnson (D) had failed to mention. The state, facing its own fiscal woes, publicly rebuked the county's school superintendent after he requested an additional $139 million in aid.

Baker then shuttled to Wall Street to reassure top ratings agencies that, despite the Johnson arrests, it was a new day in Prince George's. Except that the county's police department had dozens of police officers under investigation because of suspicions of serious misconduct, and the county was experiencing a string of homicides.

And Baker, who has said he wants to bring high-end development to the county near Metro stations, finds himself seeking ways to balance that goal with powerful interests seeking to bring slot machines to Rosecroft Raceway near Fort Washington.

"He had no honeymoon," said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's), a close Baker friend. "He came right in and everything just kind of fell on him at once."

The Johnsons' arrests, the homicides and the strained budget, to say nothing of efforts by Baker and his staff to gain a clear picture of the operations of county government, have forced him to at times detour from some of his stated priorities: ethics reform, seeking new sources of money for county projects, fixing financially troubled Prince George's Hospital Center and bringing new development to swell the county treasury.

"This has been a trying time in Prince George's," Baker told about 50 residents gathered recently for a budget hearing.

The unexpected obstacles have eaten up a lot of his time. One evening, when he might have been combing through the county's $2.7 billion budget for money to continue school improvement, he was instead attending a vigil for a homicide victim; another day found him at a police news conference offering reassurances that the county was a safe place to live and work.

"He ended up with the dramatically reduced honeymoon period and a lot of difficulty getting the public to focus on the agenda he was trying to roll out. Instead, you have these big crises that are waiting at the front door for you," said Glenn Ivey, the county's former top prosecutor and a close Baker friend.

But the county executive, well-known for his calm demeanor, remains upbeat, friends say. "There are no regrets," Davis said.

Urgency versus caution

During campaign stops last year, Baker often promised he would rid the county of its "pay to play" reputation. And the allegations against Jack Johnson and his wife, who is now a County Council member, offered a new opportunity to raise the issue. The charges, which included an accusation of destruction of a $100,000 check from a developer, get at something that worries Baker: New businesses won't come to the county if they think they will be shaken down.

"Most people know something has to be done," Baker said in a recent interview. "It is a significant part of our economic development package."

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