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Corruption probe of Johnsons renews ethics reform debate in Prince George's

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:28 PM

The Prince George's County ethics board did not meet at all last year, at a time when federal authorities say former county executive Jack B. Johnson was collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

Johnson, 61, was indicted Monday on bribery and other charges in a widening federal corruption probe that also has seen the arrest of his wife, Leslie, now a County Council member. Both were arrested Nov. 12.

The accusations against the Johnsons have renewed debate in Prince George's over ethics reform. The ethics board, appointed by the county executive, and the County Council's Office of Audits and Investigations are charged with keeping county officials honest.

Both offices operate largely out of public view. The ethics board, although dormant last year because it received no complaints, met a handful of times in 2009. Last year, its attorney responded informally to 11 queries about government ethics.

The office, which is staffed part time, could set up regular ethics training for the county's 6,000 employees, but it has not done so for 24 years, said Anne C. Magner, the attorney adviser to the board.

"Just because they read a story in a newspaper or hear about something, they have no authority to undertake an investigation," Magner told the County Council on Tuesday, noting that the ethics board lacks subpoena power to force officials to cooperate.

Magner also noted later that the ethics commission is not independent from the county attorney, who reports to the county executive. That could discourage reporting, she said. In addition, there has been a vacancy on the five-member board for several years, she said.

Meanwhile, the Office of Audits and Investigations, which reports to the council, gets only one or two tips a month from the public, and few relate to the agency's mandate to examine government operations.

The lack of tips to the audits office might stem from the agency's low public profile, audits chief David Van Dyke told the council.

"There is a reporting system, but it doesn't seem that this is well known," Van Dyke said.

The indictment handed up Monday against Jack Johnson (D) describes a pay-to-play atmosphere in Prince George's during his tenure and quotes the former county executive in wiretaps talking about shaking down developers seeking federal housing money and demanding donations for his wife's campaign.

Johnson, 61, said Monday in a written statement that his attorney advised him not to comment and that "the time to talk is in court and not in the press."

The new charges against Johnson have sent his successor, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), scrambling to determine whether anyone still in the housing department is implicated.

Baker has said the county's long-standing reputation as a place where businesses need to "pay to play" must be repaired. He has created an outside commission - which held its second meeting Tuesday night - to determine whether the county government's approach to ethics needs to be revamped.

County Council members have resisted Baker's overtures toward ethics reform, which include bills that would restrict council oversight of development and limit campaign contributions.

Some have complained that Baker's proposals have the unintended effect of limiting the council's ability to respond to constituents who otherwise feel shut out of government. Others, such as Council Chairman Ingrid M. Turner (D-Bowie), have said the executive is impinging on the council's independence.

But Tuesday, council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) said she and her colleagues were beginning to offer their own ideas about ethics reform. "This is a good time to discuss the issue," she said, alluding to the new allegations against Johnson. "The council is committed to doing something. People want to see some action."

As she and other council members questioned Magner and Van Dyke, Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), who is charged with evidence tampering, listened but did not participate. She has not responded to requests for comment.

Peter Shapiro, a former County Council member, and a member of Baker's ethics panel, at Tuesday's night's meeting said the "ethics oversight functions in the county are currently lax. There is a sense that if something serious is going on, then the Feds need to come in."

Baker has maintained a public silence about the charges against his predecessor. Baker said through a spokesman Monday that his office would cooperate with the investigation.

But in other settings, Baker has said the county's reputation is hampering its ability to attract businesses. On Saturday, testifying at a state legislative hearing, he said businesses are turned off by the political climate in the county.

"We all have to recognize how important it is to grow our tax base and attract quality development to the county," Baker said. "That will not happen if those who seek to do business here believe that they will not get a favorable return on their investment because our review system is not as consistent and transparent as it could and should be."

Staff writers Maria Glod and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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