In Leslie E. Johnson’s Prince George’s County Council district, which she has represented since December, Wednesday was to have been a day of reckoning.
Nearly six months after her arrest in a corruption investigation that also ensnared her husband, then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), Leslie Johnson was to enter a plea in the case that day. But two days before she was due in federal court, prosecutors announced that the hearing had been canceled.
The news plunged Johnson’s 110,000 constituents, from struggling inner Capital Beltway communities to gated luxury developments, deeper into political limbo.
Johnson (D-Mitchellville), who federal officials said was arrested with $79,600 stuffed in her bra, has seen her council responsibilities curtailed. Many people following the case had predicted that any plea would include an agreement with her to resign from her council seat.
But with her court date on indefinite hold, there is no sense of what is next, no idea of how long Johnson, 59, will remain in office and no clue as to when the long-running drama might end.
The explosive and embarrassing case continues to stir strong feelings and reopen old wounds in Prince George’s, which has struggled to shake its reputation as a place where payoffs are part of the cost of doing business.
Unlike her husband, who is out office and able to maintain a lower profile, Leslie Johnson has stayed in the spotlight because of her presence on the council. For the same reason, so has the case. Jack Johnson has made clear that he plans to fight the charges and go to trial, but Leslie Johnson has not talked publicly about her legal strategy. She declined a request for an interview.
But her constituents, many of whom have been reluctant to discuss the case, expressed worry, frustration, empathy and most of all uncertainty last week as they discussed her troubles and the consequences for her district.
“I think everyone is waiting to see what the outcome will be,” said Darryl Barnes, who owns a technology firm and heads Men Aiming Higher, a nonprofit group in Mitchellville that recently received a proclamation from Leslie Johnson for its community service.
As he sipped iced tea in one of the district’s busy gathering spots — a Ruby Tuesday near the Beltway — Barnes mulled the meaning of her case.
“It is a very tough conversation to have for me,” said Barnes, who served in the Army and Navy. “She is a person who just got into a bad situation.” He said the council’s decision in December to bar her from serving on council committees hurts her and her constituents.
“If her hands weren’t tied, she would have been able to be more effective,” Barnes said.
In court papers, federal officials have charged Jack Johnson, 62, with accepting more than $200,000 in bribes and playing a central role in a broad corruption conspiracy that involved other county officials, candidates for public office, and at least three developers or business leaders.
Leslie Johnson has been charged with witness tampering and destruction of evidence for her alleged role on Nov. 12, the day federal officials say they overheard the couple on a wiretap conspiring to destroy a $100,000 check from a developer and hide money in Leslie Johnson’s undergarments.
Although some constituents said they think that Leslie Johnson should stay on the council and fight the charges, others say her continued presence is a distraction the county can ill afford. They question whether she can devote the time and energy needed to do the job. Council members are paid $96,417 for their part-time posts.
Venus Bethea, who ran in last year’s six-way Democratic primary in Johnson’s district, said she should step aside.
“A lot of people are ready to move on and begin to take care of business in the district. . . . Instead, we are trying to figure out if this woman is going to be convicted of a crime.”
Percie Rutherford, who also works for Men Aiming Higher and was sitting with Barnes at Ruby Tuesday, took the opposite view from Bethea. He said Johnson is doing a good job and should stay in office until her case is over.
“What if she gets a slap on the wrist? Then there are all these people with egg yolk on their faces. But I won’t be one of them,” he said.
If Johnson were to plead guilty to a felony, she would be forced to step down. A special primary and election would be scheduled within three months. But if there is a trial and any appeals, the case — and the political uncertainty — could continue, possibly for years.
“You never know how long due process will take,” said Derrick Leon Davis, who finished second behind Leslie Johnson in the Democratic primary. “Politically, you get the up and down. You hear something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.”
Many had hoped Wednesday would mark a turning point.
“It is a difficult situation, and I pray it gets resolved,” said Casey Lewis, secretary of the county’s Democratic Central Committee.
Mark Polk, who also ran in the Democratic primary, said the case is a constant distraction.“We would really like some closure. A lot of people thought ‘this is the day,’ let’s move on,” he said.
“There are a number of issues, continuing poor performance of schools, rise in crime. . . . We have some real everyday concerns where these particular issues get in the way of progress,” he added.
The Johnsons’ arrests have added to the county’s reputation that businesses must “pay to play.”
Soon after the couple was taken into custody, the news spread far beyond Prince George’s. On the Internet, they were mocked in a video that went viral. On late-night television, they became the butt of jokes.
But the events of Nov. 12 also spurred the most forceful efforts in years to change the county’s image. With prodding from County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), the Maryland General Assembly increased restrictions on the ability of the council and the executive to review or stall development applications. And a panel formed by Baker has urged the county government to tighten ethics rules.
Baker, like many residents, has said little publicly about the Johnsons. But he often says that the county’s reputation for corruption makes it difficult to attract businesses and jobs.
Johnson is barred from serving on council committees, where much of the real work is done. But she can vote on issues that come before the full council. She attends committee meetings and frequently asks questions.
County officials, staff members and lobbyists who interact with Johnson say she is focused on her work.
“We are all here 24-7 working on the budget,” said Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), who often consults with Johnson during council meetings. “There is nothing really to say. We are just doing our jobs.”
The restrictions on Johnson have caused some residents to say they are being disenfranchised while Johnson stays on the job.
“We are stuck in limbo. It is a nightmare that won’t end,” said Al Weaver of Upper Marlboro.
Former school board member Judy Mickens-Murray, who lives in Johnson’s district, said the council should make it more difficult for someone accused of a crime to serve while the case is pending.
“At some point, the citizens of Prince George’s County have to decide who you want to represent you, what do you want the moral code to be,” she said. “If it is to continue the covert action, get away with what you can, then stay silent. If it is that we are above that, then [require them] to step aside.”