Tuesday, February 15, 2011;
THE INDICTMENT of former Prince George's County executive Jack B. Johnson on corruption charges, including soliciting and taking bribes, is by turns nauseating and revealing. Here is the top elected official of a large local government portrayed - by virtue of his own words tape-recorded in FBI wiretaps - as routinely lining his own pockets by trading official favors for cash and other considerations, and doing so in alleged collusion with, or with the knowledge of, developers, officials in his administration and an unnamed candidate for public office, among others. That's the nauseating part. Here, too, is an executive whose avarice and ethical blindness, as depicted in the indictment, did not somehow develop late in the game; it was present near the beginning. That's the revealing part.
The indictment, handed down Monday, is the latest blow to the reputation of both Prince George's and the Johnsons, who are Democrats. (Mr. Johnson's wife, Leslie, a sitting member of the County Council who was arrested by the FBI with almost $80,000 hidden in her bra, is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator). To say the indictment is damning understates the case. Mr. Johnson is charged, for instance, with taking a $50,000 cashier's check last February from a co-conspirator referred to as Developer A. Then, weeks later, he calls to inform the developer that he managed to arrange a job for a certain "young lady" - an apparent quid pro quo. "That's excellent," says Developer A. "That was a big one," says Mr. Johnson.
The indictment further describes Mr. Johnson discussing shaking down Developer A for a further $500,000 last fall, to be split with a co-conspirator described as Public Official A. "If I can get myself about three hundred . . . I'll be in good shape," Mr. Johnson says.
Nor is Mr. Johnson heedless of the risks. After Ulysses Currie (D), a state senator from Prince George's, was indicted for corruption last fall, the wiretaps record Mr. Johnson making two phone calls in which he related his own anxiety at the prospect of criminal charges. "Man, I'm not doing [expletive] between now and, um, the rest of the term, right." Mr. Johnson's impulse for self-improvement was noble; however, at that point he had just three months left to serve in office.
For years, a large segment of officialdom in Prince George's dismissed well-documented reports in The Post and elsewhere that Mr. Johnson presided over a government rife with pay-to-play corruption and fast-and-loose practices with public funds. Many of those public officials continue, even now, to keep mum, or even to suggest that the county has somehow been treated unfairly. In fact, by remaining silent about Prince George's ethics problems, or by suggesting they are exaggerated, those officials are complicit in the damage that's been done to the county's reputation, and to its ability to provide residents with top-notch services and amenities.
In response to the indictment, Mr. Johnson issued a statement asking the county to recognize the "growth and progress that occurred during my administration." The real question for Prince George's is: How much more growth and progress might have occurred if the county's top official had exercised some semblance of ethical leadership?