Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson is being re-arraigned on federal charges, including bribery and extortion today. Details on the court appearance have been few in advance of the noon hearing. We’ll update you on the latest.
- Terry Speigner Former Chairman, Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee
- Bruce DePuyt Host of "NewsTalk," News Channel 8
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJack Johnson, the man who served as executive in Prince George's County, Md., from 2002 to 2010, serving two terms, pleaded guilty in federal court, this afternoon, to two counts in the federal investigation into his administration. Reports coming from the court house in Greenbelt, Md., say that Johnson pleaded guilty to extortion and witness evidence tampering.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFederal agents arrested Johnson and his, wife Leslie, last fall in the final weeks of his tenure as county executives. He was accused of taking bribes from developers in exchange for political favors. The sprawling corruption probe into his administration in what some have called a culture of pay to pay politics in Prince George's have cast a dark shadow on Johnson's political career, which began with great promise for Prince George's and the regions African-American community.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us, now, by telephone is Terry Speigner. He's the former chairman of the Prince George's County democratic central committee. He's now a businessman in Prince George's County. Terry Speigner, thank you for joining us.
MR. TERRY SPEIGNERKojo, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us by telephone is Bruce DePuyt, the host of "News Talk," on news channel 8. Bruce, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRUCE DEPUYTA pleasure, Kojo. Good to be on with you.
NNAMDIBruce, were you in court today?
DEPUYTYes, I just stepped out 30 seconds ago, a very dramatic time. The judge indicates, here at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Peter Messitte, formerly accepted a plea arrangement worked out between Mr. Johnson and his attorneys and federal prosecutors. He pleads guilty to two of the eight counts that he was facing. Interestingly, sentencing will not take place until September and Mr. Johnson's free until then.
NNAMDIWhen Mr. Johnson was arrested, he said he would fight this case with every bone in his body, with every iota of energy that he had. What do you think made him change his mind?
DEPUYTIt's unclear. Presumably, the mountain of evidence against him. The wiretaps and the rest, stuff that, even if he was making that claim that he was going to fight and fight hard, seemed improbable at best. The reporters and others are just filing out of the courthouse now and standing in the courthouse, outside through the big glass wall, I can see the cameras are arrayed out front.
DEPUYTWe're hoping, of course, to be able to speak to all involved. At this point, you know, time will tell. But, you know, short answer to your question, presumably the mountain of evidence may be desiring to avoid the embarrassment of a trial, all the stuff that would come out, the stuff we've heard and maybe more. And, of course, his wife is an elected official in the county. She was not here today.
DEPUYTShe was not part of this deal. But, you know, it was a source of pride for both Johnson's that she was able to secure a seat on the county council in November.
NNAMDIThe number to call here is 800-433-8850. It's your turn if you'd like to comment on the guilty plea by former Prince George's County executive, Jack Johnson, today pleading guilty to extortion and to witness tampering as part of a plea deal. What do you think? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Bruce, talk a little bit, if you will, about Mr. Johnson's demeanor during this proceeding. How long did it last?
SPEIGNERWell, you know, very interesting, Kojo, where they began at 12:30 and it's ending now as we speak. And it was very interesting, you know, Mr. Johnson, had a lot of swagger and confidence during his time in politics -- his considerable time in politics in the county. Of course, he was eight years the top prosecutor, eight years then county executive, so 16 years.
SPEIGNERA guy of not inconsiderable, you know, certain amount of confidence and swagger. But today, very different Jack Johnson in court. He seemed unsure of himself. He hesitated before answering even the most basic questions. A lot of consultations with his attorney, Billy Martin. Hesitation, tentativeness. Obviously, this is a significant moment in his life.
SPEIGNERHe's facing 20 years on each count so he's pleading guilty to extortion and conspiracy, so that alone carries a potential sentence of 20 years followed by three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. He's also pleading guilty to witness and evidence tampering and that carries a potential identical sentence of 20 years plus three years supervised release and $250,000 fine.
SPEIGNERThe judge said that he would normally -- greatly prefers to do sentencing in -- within 45 days of the plea deal being agreed to. But the attorneys -- the defense attorney was able to convince him to do it in September. So Mr. Johnson will be free quite a long time. The prosecution did not object to that lengthy interval between today and sentencing.
NNAMDIBruce DePuyt is host of, "News Talk," on news channel 8. He joins us by telephone from Greenbelt, Md., where former Prince George's County executive, Jack Johnson, pleaded guilty in federal court today. Bruce, I know you may have to leave. Just tell us if you have to. We also...
NNAMDI...we also have with us Terry Speigner, former chairman of the Prince George's County democratic central committee. Terry Speigner, your thoughts about what occurred today.
SPEIGNERWell, it's a sad day for Prince George's County. Is a sad for our county and so much that our former top elected official has now pleaded guilty to criminal charges of extortion and witness and evidence tampering. And it brings, somewhat, to closure about six months of a lot of hurry up and waiting to find out what was going to happen in the case.
SPEIGNERAnd it's a lot of dialogue that's been happening in the county about what -- where do we go from here? And what do we do next? Not only with the perception of our county, but also with the seat that Mrs. Johnson holds on the county council.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned the perception of your county, Terry Speigner, and it is in that context that I said, what would have been the alternative had there been a long drawn out trial, especially on the variety of issues that have been raised here? There are people who would say, the culture of corruption, the alleged culture of corruption in Prince George's County, would have been on display during this entire presumably long trial. In your view, would that have been a good thing or a bad thing
SPEIGNERIn my estimation, that would have been a bad thing to again have the county go through a long drawn out trial and process. If there was indeed as we understood a crime taking place, and Mr. Johnson has taken ownership of what he's done, and the justice system is doing what the justice system is supposed to do, which is to, you know, give, you know, a person -- make them have an amends for the problems that they've created.
SPEIGNERThis county has been around since 1696, and, you know, Lord knows, it's gonna be around a lot longer. And there have been issues that we've had in the past, and we've gotten beyond those issues, and I think we're gonna get beyond this issue. This is not to make light of anything that has transpired, it's just to say that the people of this county are resilient, and we're gonna bounce back, and we're gonna be better than we were today.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to...
DEPUYTI have to say though, Kojo, I think the recentness of the activities that prosecutors allege both the law and the volume of material, with clearly the most damning piece of it if you will being Mr. Johnson's own voice on a tremendous period, you know, presumably hours of audiotapes from the wiretaps they were able to secure. That would have brought the specter of this pay to play, of this you scratch my back, I'll scratch hours, it would have brought it to the front burner, to the front of the public's imagination, in a real and vivid way, and also the recentness of it I think was gonna be a source of unpleasantness and disappointment and anger, et cetera.
DEPUYTYou know, at one point in here the prosecution went through what it claimed it would be able to prove, and what Mr. John was ultimately accepting, as he accepts the barter plea agreement, he is -- at one point he received -- Mr. Johnson, Jack Johnson, received a check for $50,000 in exchange for part of his negotiations -- nefarious negotiations with a certain developer identified as Developer A, then returns the check because -- in exchange an agreement for cash payments over a periodic basis.
DEPUYTSo he's even thinking through, it would appear, the unseemliness of having a big check, cash being so much easier to deal with.
NNAMDIAgain, the number you can call, 800-433-8850 to share your opinion. It's your turn on the plea deal accepted by former Prince George's County Jack Johnson, pleading guilty to two counts today. 800-433-8850. What effect do you think it will have on the perception of Prince George's County? Do you think that having a long time may have given us some better insight into what's going on in Prince George's County in terms of how business is done, which is the question I also raise with you Bruce Depuyt.
NNAMDIIn a way, on the one hand, Prince George's County is denied the pain and suffering of going through a long trial. On the other hand, it means that we may never get to see details of how business was being done during the Johnson administration in Price George's County.
DEPUYTWell, I wonder, and I'm, you know, I haven't covered this matter as much as some of my colleagues in the press, but I have to wonder about some of the ancillary characters who, you know, you could see are at the periphery of it, but nonetheless had their roles. They've got be in some kind of legal jeopardy as well, unless they've somehow agreed, or are preparing to agree to their own deal with prosecutors, that would result in some sort of cooperation going forward.
DEPUYTBut there were others who are accused of wrongdoing here. And depending on whether there are trials for each of them going forward, we may learn more about who helped whom, how certain permits were obtained, what, you know, who got who a job in exchange for cash. There's a lot here, and I'm sure that Mr. Johnson, you know, at this point, it's already apparent that Mr. Johnson is the most, and will remain the most high profile person ensnared in the federal web. But that's not to say he's the only one.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What concerns do you have about the relationships between business and developers in Prince George's County, and do you think that that has now been resolved, settled with the guilty plea of former county executive Jack Johnson? It's your turn. 800-433-8850. Here is Norma in Lanham, Md. Norma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NORMAYes. It amazes me that these politicians, they don't look at the past or see what the record has been. It's obvious that more than one person has gone down doing stuff they're not supposed to. They get in these positions and they lose all common sense. It's crazy.
NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for that comment. You know, Bruce Depuyt, there were a lot of people who were surprised that Jack Johnson, as a former prosecutor himself, would find himself in this position today. And when you talk about his demeanor in court, and the fact that he appeared to be so restrained, so tentative in his demeanor today, and this guilty plea, I suspect, simply causes a lot of people to say yes, he was as thoughtless as he seemed to be when the -- when this story first came out.
DEPUYTI mean, that's a good point, Kojo. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions here. The whole how could he be so stupid thing was just palpable among reporters, political types and others. Someone who knows what it takes to put a prosecution of a crime together, the inside world, if you will, of evidence of gathering, or wire taps and the rest, and here he is being eavesdropped upon by a federal wire tap.
DEPUYTThe apparent (word?) and now the shaky Jack Johnson that we're seeing in court. It's just -- even though we're at a fairly advanced stage in all of this, I think there's still a lot we don't know and may never know because it involves sort of the inner workings of someone's mind, how people can compartmentalize things and turn a blind eye to stuff that they really should pretty much get at a basic level.
NNAMDIAs you pointed out earlier, Bruce, there are developments -- the developments in this case are not -- are they in any way related to the separate case with Leslie Johnson, Jack Johnson's wife who was, as you pointed out, elected to the county council in Prince George's County before all of this happened. Her position on the council is not one of power. A lot of her responsibilities have been stripped from her. But she was scheduled for a hearing a few weeks ago. She backed out of it. Any indications at all about what's likely to happen in that case?
DEPUYTNone whatsoever. I'm hoping that we learn more soon. As I look down from the balcony here I'm seeing Mr. Johnson surrounded by people I -- it looks like I'm going to assume it's his defense team although I don't see Mr. Martin. In any event, the, you know, it's a very interesting question, and a lot we don't know about Mrs. Johnson. As you indicate, there was as meeting, and at the time it was thought that a plea could be the result of that, but it got canceled abruptly and it's in limbo now as far as those of us on the outside.
NNAMDIAre any of the people you...
DEPUYTOh, there's Mr. Martin joining the group with Mr. Johnson. So it appears he is surrounded -- that Jack Johnson is surrounded by, you know, a tight huddle with his legal team on the ground level of the courthouse.
NNAMDIAre there any people with microphones around? Is Mr...
DEPUYTNo. We're all -- the press is outside on the portico area -- the outside of the courthouse with a podium set up, a microphone area, and there are close to ten, maybe more, cameras, and probably 30 reporters waiting for -- and now Mr. Johnson and his team are heading toward the door. So if they choose to speak to the press, we'll -- and I'm not in a position to hear them. I don't know if Armando's out there, but maybe I'll make my way downstairs. But Mr. Johnson and his legal team are headed toward the reporters.
NNAMDIArmando Trull is a reporter for WAMU 88.5 who is also covering the story. Well, Bruce, if indeed there is an opportunity for you to speak to Mr. Johnson, or his defense attorneys, you can head outside. We'll continue our conversation with Terry Speigner. But keep us on the line in case you choose to rejoin us.
NNAMDITerry Speigner, how would you respond to those who have concerns about whether there's a culture of corruption in Prince George's County, whether there's a pay for play kind of attitude in the county?
SPEIGNERI would respond that Prince George's County is not unlike the other 3,140 odd counties in the United States of America. It's a county that has elected officials, and then people have their -- people have issues. And that is to say that anyone runs for office expecting, you know, fame and fortune, they should know that the fame will be fleeting, and any fortune that you get will be ill-gotten. And folks just really have to understand that being in an office of public service is to serve the public and not to serve one's own goals and objectives.
SPEIGNERAnd I think that's the footnote to this story is that at the end of the day, you have to go in to these public offices with the utmost of integrity and you have to do the business of the people with the utmost integrity at all times.
NNAMDIWell, Mr. John has eight years in office. By the way, you can call at 800-33-8850. It's your turn, if you have questions or comments about the guilty plea rendered by former Prince George's County executive, Jack Johnson, today. Here is Alice in Maryland. Alice, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALICEYes. I'm also questioning the fact that Jack Johnson was a former prosecutor for many years in Prince George's County, and was he just as dishonest at that time. Like, how many things did he look the other way or get paid for? Has anyone ever checked on that?
NNAMDIYou know, Alice, they say hindsight is 20/20 vision. And Terry Speigner, you have known Jack Johnson for a very long time. Have you found yourself looking back from time to time saying, I wonder if there were conversations I had with Jack Johnson in which I could have had a glimpse, a glimmer that there was fundamental dishonest or corruption there? Do you have those kinds of conversations with yourself?
SPEIGNERNot really. Typically, the conversations I have with just about every elected official in Prince George's county, or in the state of Maryland, that I come in contact is typically about how do we best serve, you know, the people that they're elected to serve. Having sat as chair of the largest Democratic party in the state with over 20 percent of the parties' registered voters, that has always been my focus is how to keep them focused on doing what's best for the constituents.
SPEIGNERAnd as you said earlier, I am a business owner, but I do no business with the county. I do no business with the state of Maryland, and so I keep that part of my life separate from my activism and my political aspirations and the things in the political arena.
NNAMDIWell, before this story broke, Jack Johnson was a good business deal for Prince George's County. He is the one who brought National Harbor. He's the one who brought Wegmans George's County, before this arrest, before all of this devolved, if you will, the general idea, the general opinion, the general assessment, was that Jack Johnson was good for business in Prince George's County, wasn't it?
SPEIGNERThe general assessment is eight years of a Johnson administration saw Prince George's County go from, geez, about a $1.7 billion budget to about a $2.8 billion budget, operational budget in the county. It saw the county again, acquire Wegmans and National Harbor, the Gaylord, Disney. A lot of things that people in the county had been yearning for for years happened on his watch. So from that perspective, a lot of good things happened for the county as far as development was concerned under the former county executive, Jack Johnson.
NNAMDIAgain, we're soliciting your opinions on the Jack Johnson guilty plea today at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Terry Speigner. He is the former chairman of the Prince George's Democratic Central Committee. How do you feel this will affect the future of doing business, and for that matter, politics in Prince George's County? Terry Speigner, the new executive, Rashan Baker, is going to be joining us on the politics hour program this Friday.
NNAMDIHe has formed an ethics task force. It's chaired by former Baltimore Mayor, Kurt Schmoke and retired judge, William Missouri. What kind of work do you think that Rashan Baker is going to have to do to put the Jack Johnson investigation behind the county and rebuild the county's reputation?
SPEIGNERHe's gonna have to do it one day at a time, and he's going to have to do it the old-fashioned way which is allow your deeds to speaker louder than your words. And that's essentially what it's going boil down to as folks don't really want to hear what you have to say about what needs to be done. They want to see what you're going to do, and roll up your sleeves and get it done. So what we've been living through since, you know, November, with the arrest, and prior to November with the rumors, is not going to go away over night.
SPEIGNERIt could be the first four years, it could be the eight years, it could be 16 years. It could be one or two county executives to prove that we now have a couple of administrations who are doing what they're supposed to do. We're not getting headlines in the Post and the Gazette and the Baltimore Sun, or on broadcast or national news about the ills of Prince George's County. So it's gonna take, you know, a little while for us to get back to where we ought to be.
SPEIGNERBut again, I have to remind people, Prince George's County hasn't been in existence just for the eight years of Jack Johnson's administration, or for the last 16 years. We've been around since 1696. So we have a long history, and a glorious history. And this is a momentary spot that we can -- that can be blotted out with people rolling up their sleeves and doing the work of the people.
NNAMDIHere is -- here is Daniel in Prince George's County. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELThank you for taking my call, Kojo. I'm just highly upset how the private community, about PG County, the community itself, how they chose his wife as a council member knowing what she...
NNAMDINo. At the time -- none of this had occurred at the time, Daniel. When Leslie Johnson ran for office on the Prince George's County Council, it was before the incident that led to the arrest of both of the Johnsons. So there was no knowledge on the part of the voters at that time that this occurred. But I think Bruce Depuyt is still with us. Bruce, what's going on now?
NNAMDIWell, Bruce is no longer with us. But Terry Speigner, do you think that Leslie Johnson, in the wake of this guilty plea by her husband, should give up her seat on the county council?
SPEIGNERIn the wake of the guilty plea of her husband, that's his trial. She has a totally separate trial. So we're still waiting to find out what will happen with her trial. I don't know that they're both tied together. I think they're both being treated as separate trials.
NNAMDIWell, we will see what happens, because we do know that in the public story that broke, they were both involved at the same time. The legal system has decided to try them separately. We'll have to see what happened. Terry Speigner, thank you for joining us.
SPEIGNERYou're welcome, sir.
NNAMDITerry Speigner is the former chairman of the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee. He is now a business man in Prince George's County. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Taylor Burnie, with assistance from A.C. Valdez, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIWe encourage you to share questions or comments with us by emailing email@example.com, by joining us on Facebook, or by tweeting @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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