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Fraser Smith: The good, the bad and P.G. County

Reverberations from Bra-Gate. Some troubling, others quite reassuring.

The downside first.

Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson famously urged his wife by tapped telephone to hide more than $79,000 — in cash — in her underwear. Federal authorities were converging on the Johnson home at the time.

The county immediately became the butt of jokes. How do you hide that much cash in a brassiere?

Actually, the U.S. Attorney’s agents knew where to look.  They had been listening in on Johnson and his wife, Leslie. They were already busted. They were charged immediately with destroying and tampering with evidence.

Jokes aside, this drama was almost anticlimactic.

“The general notion that there was trouble in River City was not news among the county’s political players,” said a member of the Prince George’s County General Assembly delegation. “The only thing that was new was that now the public knew what we all suspected.”

The public, actually, might have had a clue.

Newspaper reports over the course of a few years had raised questions about the Johnson administration’s handling of contracts. A state senator, Ulysses Currie, had been in trouble for various offenses. Federal authorities had also explored Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller’s role in the promotion of slot machine legislation and campaign contributions.

Miller was cleared of any violations, but Currie was indicted for failing to report payments he received from a business in his district.

‘A culture of corruption’

The amount of money floating around the Johnsons surely raises questions about how development is carried on in Prince George’s. Federal authorities say the Johnson arrests were “the tip of the iceberg.”

Who has $79,000 in cash kicking around in the house, not to speak of a $100,000 check authorities say was flushed down the toilet within listening distance of the Johnsons’ phone call.

It takes little imagination to see a vibrant pay-to-play operation in Prince George’s. Some wondered if the rumors about Johnson’s alleged favoritism were nothing more than routine organization building, or something worse. “Something worse” has surged into the lead.

“It’s embarrassing for just about everyone in the county,” the country lawmaker said. And, he added, it could be a problem going forward. “It suggests a culture of corruption.”

This culture can be corrosive. If it persists, more bad guys come in to join the bad guys who are there already. And if the authorities bring bribery charges, some will surely wonder, who did the bribing? You can’t have the one without the other.

Now for the good news

So where, you may ask, is the aforementioned upside?

Johnson will be out soon as county executive, having served his maximum two terms. Currie, though still in office, has been shorn of his committee chairmanship in the General Assembly.

So now, for the first time in decades, government in Prince George’s is largely free of bitter personal antagonisms that made governing far more difficult. Before the election, “dysfunctional” and “acrimonious” would have been more accurate descriptions.

Meetings called to deal with problems at the county hospital or with the county budget descended into something like spitball fights.

All of this discord had been in place for years. Senator Miller had a testy relationship with former county executive and former governor Parris N. Glendening. Miller’s relationship with former county executive Wayne Curry was seldom good either. Hardly anyone had a good relationship with Jack Johnson, the General Assembly source said.

The recent election changed most of that. Many of the candidates who were elected to the council or the General Assembly ran together or endorsed — and actually like — each other.

“It was a 180-degree change,” the lawmaker said

Those who have met with County Executive-elect Rushern Baker in recent weeks have said — well before Bra-gate — that the prospects for a harmonious, productive team of elected officials have improved dramatically.

They will need all the good new vibes to outdistance the revelations of recent days.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.


2 comments

  1. If JJ and spouse comprised the tip of the iceberg, when will the rest be made public? Inquiring minds want to know: are county council members are next – one in particular?

  2. Why are we using this term “pay to play”. It sounds so nice like “revenue enhancement” instead of tax increase. The correct word is extortion. Prince george’s officials extort payments from private individuals in order for the person to have access to government processes. Extortion is when the official demands a payment for him doing his job.That is what has gone on the Prince George’s. Extortion is also the name of the criminal act.