Corruption charges disturb residents in Md. county

In two years, Prince George's County residents have seen a former schools superintendent sent to prison and corruption charges brought against a senior state senator and the county executive and his wife.

The latest case is the stuff of movies or late-night TV jokes: Authorities say County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife were arrested Nov. 12 after he accepted $15,000 from a developer and federal investigators tapping his phone reportedly heard him tell her to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and hide $79,600 in her bra.

The string of scandals has left residents angry, frustrated and wondering who will be next. Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein described their arrests as "the tip of the iceberg."

"A lot of the problems with the county have been the 'pay-for-play' thing — that a lot of reputable stores just don't want to deal with it," said longtime county resident Linda Baker, 64, as she shopped at a strip mall this week. "Both my husband and I are retired, and we just don't want to be here anymore."

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose district includes much of the county, said the federal investigation could lead to a new beginning, as long-festering problems come to the surface.

"I don't see it affecting the county adversely in the sense that I think there's going to be more indictments and I think there will be a sigh of relief that this has come to a head and that the proper authorities are dealing with it and that the county can now move forward," said Miller, a political lion who has been the state Senate president since 1987.

Prince George's, a suburb of Washington, D.C., is the nation's wealthiest majority-black county, according to the census. The county, which has about 834,000 residents, is 66 percent black with a median annual household income of $71,696.

While residents have at times complained that Prince George's lacks the shopping and entertainment offerings of its neighbors, it has scored some notable successes — from luring the Washington Redskins to a new Landover stadium in the late 1990s to attracting the glitzy National Harbor development to the Potomac River's shores a few years ago.

Still, the county has been dogged by controversies involving its police department — which had a high rate of officer-involved fatal shootings in the 1990s — and its government leaders.

Audrey Scott, a former County Council member who chairs the Maryland Republican Party, said she used to hear about officials expecting developers to go beyond what was required to, say, build a playground or refurbish a senior citizens center.

"There were certain elected officials who felt that developers owed something more — above and beyond what was required in the zoning application process, in the permitting process," said Scott, who ran unsuccessfully for county executive against Johnson in 2002.

The FBI affidavit in the Johnson case describes a bizarre series of events in which Johnson placed a call to his wife, Leslie, after he was confronted by FBI agents about the $15,000 payment. With FBI agents at the door of the couple's Mitchellville home and investigators listening in on their phone conversation, the affidavit says, Johnson told his wife (a county council member-elect) to flush a $100,000 check from a real estate developer down the toilet and to hide nearly $80,000 in cash.

"Put it in your bra and walk out or something," Johnson reportedly told his wife. She did as advised, according to the FBI, and agents recovered the money from her underwear.

Jack and Leslie Johnson were charged with witness and evidence tampering and destruction, alteration and falsification of records in a federal investigation. They both face 20 years in prison.

He says he is innocent of the charges. Leslie Johnson's attorney said she is asking for prayers and support "through the ordeal of fighting to disprove the allegations that are pending against her now."

Authorities said the investigation was initiated in January 2006 after FBI agents learned about allegations of real estate developers offering rewards to county officials in exchange for personal and business favors.

The investigation expanded this past week when nine more people were indicted, including three county police officers. Two officers were charged with conspiring to commit extortion in a scheme to sell untaxed cigarettes and alcohol. While those indictments don't mention Johnson, federal prosecutors have said they are related and that they are determined to root out corruption in the county.

Some residents can only shake their heads when asked about the scandal, walking away and muttering words like "depressing" without saying anything more.

Johnson, a Democrat, now comes to work as the county's chief executive near the end of his second term with an electronic monitoring device. His term ends Dec. 6, when he will be succeeded by a Democrat who had twice run against him unsuccessfully.

In a hastily called news conference meant to reassure county residents, Rushern Baker said he would remain focused on the kitchen-table issues that people care about — job growth, transit-oriented development, health care and school reform. He also called for an ethics reform package, including the first county inspector general, a ban on county credit cards for elected officials and tighter campaign finance regulations.

Marva Henry, who lived in Prince George's County for 29 years and only recently moved away, said she questions why prosecutors seem to focus on African-American officials. Her husband, Winston, also expressed frustration that prosecutors seem to be focusing more on Prince George's County than other localities. But both said they were angry at Johnson over the allegations.

"If he was my brother, I would whip him," said Winston Henry, 69. "If you get there and the people put you there, don't let them down."

Other recent corruption cases include the indictment in September of state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a longtime legislator who chaired a powerful spending committee, for allegedly using his influence to benefit a grocery store chain for which he worked as a consultant. Currie, a 73-year-old Democrat, stepped down from his chairmanship but remains a senator and recently won re-election. He has pleaded not guilty to federal charges including bribery, conspiracy and extortion.

Former executives of Shoppers Food Warehouse also face charges stemming from the probe. Meanwhile, Currie's campaign treasurer, Olivia Harris, was charged in a 15-count indictment in September for allegedly stealing more than $150,000 from his campaign.

In 2008, former county schools superintendent Andre J. Hornsby was convicted of wire fraud, attempted evidence tampering and obstruction of justice after being accused of steering grants and school money to companies in exchange for cash and other promised compensation.

County resident James Barker, 55, said he is frustrated by the scandals. He said a friend from neighboring Montgomery County recently sent an e-mail ribbing him over the latest revelations.

"It was sort of like poking fun at us P.G. County folks, because this is, again, what goes on," Barker said. "It's so expected, you see, and it's so normal that we're sort of used to it."


Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols in Baltimore contributed to this story.