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Monday, July 7, 1 p.m. ET

Sweetheart Deals in Prince George's County

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Cheryl Thompson and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 7, 2008; 1:00 PM

Post writers Cheryl Thompson and Mary Pat Flaherty were online Monday, July 7 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about their story on how public land deals in Prince George's County benefit those with ties to County Executive Jack Johnson.

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The transcript follows.

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Cheryl Thompson: Good afternoon. Thanks for reading the stories and for taking time to write in. Let's get started!

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Riverdale Park, Md.: Thanks, Cheryl and Mary, for your deep and wide reporting on the scandalous sale of PG county's land.

Your story so outraged me that I expected the Post's editorial board to weigh in. But it didn't. Why not?

Cheryl Thompson: They're a separate entity and we don't always know what they do or when they're going to it. Remember, the story was only published yesterday!

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Falls Church, Va.: How much more evidence do the residents of PG need to convince them that their county CEO is corrupt? Not just corrupt, but incompetent also.

One week they throw a bash to celebrate their higher bond rating, and then the following week they talk about budget cuts due to decreased revenue from home sales.

I'm really glad I moved out of PG half a year ago. There is absolutely no bang for your tax bucks -- especially since half of the families on my old street back in Bowie had to put their kids in private school and 65 percent of the residents leave the county for their jobs.

Mary Pat Flaherty: Hello. Our interest as reporters is to publish information that taxpayers might not be able to get to on their own as a way of making them aware of government proceedings. Our role ends there but as posters here are showing, there are many threads for discussions among people who share your views and those who just as strongly don't.

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Potomac, Md.: Has law enforcement gotten involved in any of these activities that might have a tinge of illegality?

Cheryl Thompson: State and federal law enforcement have launched an investigation into a story we published in late 2006 on alleged credit-care misuse by Mr. Johnson, his staff and the county council. State prosecutors began a review of charitable grants from owners of the National Harbor development that went to groups assocated with Mr. Johnson or with those doling out the money.

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Silver Spring, Md.: It seems like Jack Johnson has also been using the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to steer deals to friends, causing that institution to become increasingly corrupt. Is there any move to split the WSSC so that at least the Montgomery users can get better service?

Cheryl Thompson: I don't know but we'll check into it. Thanks!

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Oxon Hill, Md.: One would have to be a fool or very naive to think that coincidence would explain all of the abnormalities that you uncovered in this story. Is this a case of "this is how business is done"? Or, do you feel as if there is a more sinister underlying process of cronyism at play?

Mary Pat Flaherty: Mary Pat here. We reported on development activity and presented information that we found and pressed the county for even more information about public land sales, which it declined to release. Once again, and I know this sounds like a broken record, but the judgments about whether these contracts are coincidences, abnormalities or business as usual, as your question cast it, are for others to make.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I don't know if you plan to, but I would suggest you take a look at how businesses are awarded contracts in Prince George's. Especially school suppliers. Either you have to be a friend of Jack, or a friend of a close friend of Jack's or a friend of a well-connected school official (no, not Deasy). I'm sure the corruption expands to other business areas as well, but I am aware of the school issue.

Cheryl Thompson: Thanks so much! We'll check it out. We rely often on our readers to be our eyes and ears.

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Mitchellville, Md.: Four questions: First, does the Post plan additional stories regarding corruption or questionable practices under the Johnson administration? And in the same vein, why doesn't the Post do a follow up to clarify for the public the facts regarding some of the specific explanations offered by the county executive?

Also, did the Post interview council members about the story, and why didn't the story cover the lack of council oversight with respect to the disposal of county owned properties? Is the Post aware of federal or state criminal investigative activity in connection with the matters covered by the story?

Why didn't the Post mention that Tommie Thompson had been inexplicably absent from work -- on some sort of paid leave for the three months prior to his "firing" last week?

And finally, on what evidence is the Post concluding/accepting that James Johnson and Jack Johnson are not first cousins as many who know them assert?

Cheryl Thompson: This is the fourth in-depth story The Post has published examining the Johnson administration. The first was in August 2006 on consulting and other contracts awarded by Mr. Johnson. That was followed by alleged credit-card misuse by Mr. Johnson, several of his staff members and several members of the County Council. Last year we looked at charity grants. So we're always looking for stories. If you have any tips, please email or call me...

Regarding the relationship between Jack Johnson and James Johnson, we need proof that the two are related. If you have it, we'd love to see it.

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He's crooked!: These kind of situations need to land public officials in jail. There is absolutely no reason that this should be taking place. Is there any precedent to press real charges against him?

Cheryl Thompson: Are you asking if any Prince George's County executive has been prosecuted?

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Oxon Hill, Md.: Can you explain some or any of the ties that you found connecting the National Harbor project to this story? Thank you.

Mary Pat Flaherty: Thank you for joining us. The development sites we looked at are independent of National Harbor (although The Post has written quite a bit about that development over decades as it moved along and also more recently about problems with the charitable program funded by the National Harbor developers and overseen by a board of county residents and appointees). Our story mentioned that a vice president of National Harbor who also does development projects on his own through a private portfolio became a partner with one of the county residents who won contracts, but that is an indirect connection.

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Arlington, Va.: What surprised you the most about the corruption you uncovered? And is it difficult to do this sort of investigative work? Did you find yourselves getting stonewalled a lot?

Cheryl Thompson: What probably surprised me most was the reluctance of the county attorney's office to release public records. More than a year later, they still haven't turned over many records we requested. That can make our job difficult. Luckily, as reporters, you develop good sources!

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Bethesda, Md. : What has Johnson's (or his office's) response been to the article? Have you received more denials? Silence?

Cheryl Thompson: We haven't heard from Mr. Johnson or his staff today.

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washingtonpost.com: Confidential to Fort Washington: Please give Cheryl a call at 202.334.7460 after the discussion is over. Thanks!

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Rockville, Md.: Can you define a sweetheart deal? I keep hearing that Obama might have gotten one on his mortgage in Chicago, for instance, but then I hear that in his case, good credit might have been the reason for his lower rate or whatever. Is it difficult to prove that someone got a sweetheart deal, or is it pretty clear cut?

Cheryl Thompson: Wikipedia defines a sweetheart deal as "an abnormally favorable contractual arrangement."

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McLean, Va.: It seems like there ought to be better safeguards in place to stop this sort of corruption before it starts. Do you two have any recommendations on that front?

Mary Pat Flaherty: Two of you (great minds, eh?) posed this same question on what checks and balance are in place. We asked that same question repeatedly both of county adminstrators and the county attorney--and failing direct replies from them -- of sources familiar with the processes. As the story noted, we asked to see a list of bidders. We asked to see copies of the protocols and procedures covering the disposition of land, appraisals, review criteria on deals put out to bid. We never received the protocols despite numerous promises that they would be coming our way and the response to other public information requests was spotty. So, that is a long way of saying that there could well be checks and balances in place but the documentation we sought that would laid that out was not produced.

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Oxon Hill, Md.: You mentioned that after a year, there are still some public records that Mr. Johnson's office still has not released. Can you explain this process and if the records are open to the public, how can they not disclose them? What recourse does the Post or anyone else for that matter have when they run up against a government brick wall?

Cheryl Thompson: Good question. The public has a right to public records. Period. The Prince George's County attorney has an obligation to turn them over, as do lawyers for the Redevelopment and Housing authorities. The fact that they choose to ignore the state records law is perplexing.

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Depressing: I have to admit that opening up the paper to find yet another example of corruption is killing me. Did you see any signs of hope that this stuff will be cleaned up quickly as you waded through the crap?

Mary Pat Flaherty: let us move past the last word in that question and get to the heart of your issue. whether any story provokes people to ask questions--or lands with a mighty thud--is out of our hands. and i know that stories can be dispiriting when they seem merely to add to the point of view you have about the operations of public officials. but we are here to bring information forward that people either take up as their own and process or don't. and wouldn't it be even more dispiriting if The Post was not around to do that?

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Washington, D.C.: How much time did you spend investigating this? How long do you usually spend on a story or series like this one? Just wondering.

Cheryl Thompson: This story took 19 months from beginning to end. Much of that time was spent going back and forth with the county over release of public records. As you know, they still haven't released everything we requested, despite Mr. Johnson's statement that "we are disclosing all the information regardless of whether we are required to do so by the Maryland Public Information Act..."

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Alexandria, Va.: What got you started looking into this story? Did someone on the inside tip you off or did you just start reading different things and put together the thought that something was going on? Or did the story come about some other way altogether?

Cheryl Thompson: We received a tip about a particular land deal and it grew from there.

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MoCo, but near the line: How much power does this person have? Can he sign off on deals on his own authority? Isn't there some kind of body that's supposed to be overseeing him, or some kind of review panel?

Cheryl Thompson: If you're referring to the county executive, he determines what land to sell off, etc., and puts together a list that goes to the county council for approval. That's according to county code. The council, which can remove parcels from the list but can't add them, approves the list.

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Other areas?: In the course of doing this story, did you uncover corruption in other parts of town? Do you think this sort of thing is widespread or really just central to PG County?

Mary Pat Flaherty: Ferreting out details on land deals is time consuming--and we spent ours on Prince George's. That is not to say there are not other areas worth looking at -- and certainly our colleagues here who cover Metro do a good job of that day in and day out--but our reporting was more narrowly focused.

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Cheryl Thompson: Thanks everyone for joining us!

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Mary Pat Flaherty: Thank you all for joining us and for reading The Washington Post.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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