In Jack Johnson's shadow

Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 8:40 PM

AT THE HEART of the corruption charges facing former Prince George's County executive Jack B. Johnson, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday, is the depiction of a public official scrambling in his final months in office to feather his nest by any and all means. As the FBI listened in by means of wiretap, Mr. Johnson is heard discussing trading official favors for cash and generally "trying to line up some stuff for myself, man," as he put it in one recording last May. Did the "stuff" Mr. Johnson was "trying to line up" include a job in the county health department for his son, Jack B. Johnson Jr.?

That's the question raised in a Post story by Miranda Spivack, who reported that the younger Mr. Johnson, who goes by the name Bruce, was hired as a budget analyst in the health department last fall, just weeks before his father left office. Bruce Johnson was hired despite a hiring freeze and was paid almost 40 percent more than the entry-level salary for the job.

According to sources and records reviewed by The Post, the hiring process usually takes about 150 days; Mr. Johnson was hired in scarcely a third of that time and in competition with 45 other job applicants. Why? No one in county government has provided an explanation. Nor could county officials provide documentation to explain his annual salary of $71,483, which is $20,000 above the job's entry-level pay. Likewise, the county could provide no records to prove that a waiver was granted to enable his hiring during a freeze, as would have been required. In fact, two of the three officials who formed the hiring committee whose role was to grant such waivers told The Post they have no recollection of doing so.

A nepotism rule for Prince George's County government generally prohibits the hiring of officials' children. In this case, county lawyers make the deft legal argument that since Bruce Johnson wasn't hired under his father's direct authority, the rule "would likely not be violated" - although they acknowledge that the issue is "not free from doubt."

Bruce Johnson remains on the job, working under an appointee of his father, Donald Shell, who leads the department. The former county personnel chief, Donald Bridgeman, a close associate of Jack Johnson's, said that the younger Johnson was qualified. But county officials declined to release any information about Bruce Johnson's work history or occupational background, fearing a lawsuit on grounds of violating his right to privacy under personnel laws. He received a state license as an insurance broker last year and worked for eight weeks as a temporary budget analyst for the county's Department of Environmental Resources before being hired for his current job.

Here are two obvious questions: Did Jack Johnson intervene in county personnel procedures to press for the hiring of his son against stiff competition? And did county officials, on their own authority or the elder Mr. Johnson's urging, arrange to pay him more than the going rate for the position?

Unfortunately, the administration of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III appears more eager to bury the unhappy memories of Jack Johnson's tenure than to delve into those questions. Prince George's officials have dragged their feet on providing further information to The Post and taken the position that the younger Mr. Johnson's hiring was, as a spokesman for Mr. Baker put it, "a decision of the previous administration." As long as that remains the official attitude, the questions will not go away.

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