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FBI agents last week arrested Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, on charges of tampering with evidence. Investigators say the arrests are the “tip of the iceberg” in a larger probe into corruption in the Johnson administration. We discuss the next steps in the case and explore what the arrests mean for the county.
- Miranda Spivack Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "Selling Ideas for the Public Good," we explore the craft of public service campaigns from Smokey the Bear to Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk. But first, a sprawling public corruption case consumes Prince George's County. Last Friday, Federal agents arrested County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, accusing the two of tampering with and destroying evidence. It's a rap sheet that includes charges of flushing a dirty $100,000 check down a toilet and hiding $80,000 worth of cash in a bra. Investigators say the arrests are the tip of the iceberg, the first pieces of a much broader corruption probe into Johnson's administration and allegations that Johnson regularly took bribes from local developers and their associates.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the next steps of the case and what the immediate aftermath means for Prince George's County is Miranda Spivack. She's a reporter for The Washington Post who covers Prince George's County. Miranda, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. MIRANDA SPIVACKWell, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. I'm sure there are a lot of comments that you'd like to make, 800-433-8850, or you can do that at our website, kojoshow.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Miranda, this is a corruption case that prosecutors say they've been building for four years, but it came to a head on Friday when FBI agents arrested Johnson and his wife and raided his home and office. Law enforcers say more arrests and more charges are coming. What exactly was he accused of this week? And what's the nature of the case that prosecutors seem to be laying out now?
SPIVACKWell, I think you summed it up pretty well. It is -- if it is the tip of the iceberg, then what happened on Friday was perhaps an attempt to rattle Johnson into taking some steps that he then appears to have taken, which led to this destruction of these evidence tampering charges. This morning, there were nine other people arrested. It's not quite clear if it's absolutely linked to the Johnson arrest on Friday.
NNAMDII'm six behind you. I'm only up to the three police officers, those who were arrested in Beltsville.
SPIVACKNo. There are liquor store owners, the owner of a glass store. There was a big raid, which may still be going on now, at the Tick Tock Liquors in Hyattsville, and it's not -- as I said, that's -- it's not immediately clear. But since the prosecutors on Friday promised more was to come, it would be naïve, I think, for us to think that there is absolutely no link to what happened on Friday. But there have been allegations for years of far-reaching corruption in Prince George's and in the Johnson administration. And he's about to leave office, and to get him on public corruption charges, it's probably better to make an arrest while he's still in office -- although, of course, I'm not an attorney.
NNAMDIDo you have any idea what the next steps are likely to be in this investigation you talked earlier? You just talked about the other nine people who have been arrested today and the likely links between this and the arrest of the county executive and his wife. Any clue -- link at all about where this might be leading?
SPIVACKThere are a lot of rumors swirling, and it's a little difficult, I think, at this point because this is all really unfolding practically in front of us as it did on Friday, and again, is doing today. But development deals in Prince George's, where there is still tons of open land able to developed, is a very likely place where they may find problems. Colleagues of mine four years ago did a very lengthy piece in which they laid out some of the potential conflicts of interest, concept of pay-for-play and the idea that development is really right for corruption in Prince George's and, frankly, anywhere where there's a lot of open land in the Washington Area.
NNAMDIIndeed, Rushern Baker, the county's incoming executive, ran on a reform platform this year against County Sheriff Michael Jackson, the candidate who had the weight of Jack Johnson's base behind him. Baker said that there's been a pay-to-play, as you just said, kind of system in Prince George's County. What does this arrest means for -- mean for Rushern Baker as he puts together his administration?
SPIVACKWell, you know, I think this kind of -- the timing of this is, if you're Baker, is probably both good and bad. It probably vindicates in his mind, and he's going to speak out, finally, this afternoon.
NNAMDIHe's been quiet for a few days, but it probably is some vindication of the kind of platform that he ran on, which is to say, there are lots of dirty things in the air and in the water. And we need to clean them up in Prince George's, and he's been very adamant about that. He was adamant about that when he was a state legislator and chairman of the county's delegation, so, you know, there is that. It's also very painful, I think, for people in Prince George's who are struggling and have struggled for years to kind of break out of this mindset that they are somehow a second-class county in the Washington area. Those feelings are very strong about that. I mean, the recent opening of the Wegmans Grocery Store was heralded as...
NNAMDIWhich I happened to be the emcee of, and you happened to cover.
SPIVACKThat was heralded and is being heralded as sort of a great stride forward for this county, which retailers and big investors have shunned for years and years. So to have another situation where it looks like top public officials may have been involved in wrongdoing is very painful and is also a setback for the county.
NNAMDIMiranda Spivack is a reporter at The Washington Post who covers Prince George's County. We are talking about the arrest of County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850 or your e-mail at email@example.com. Leslie Johnson recently won a seat on the county council. She's supposed to take that office next month. Apparently, the arrest won't prevent her from taking that seat at this point.
SPIVACKThat's true. I've scoured the county charter last week to try to get the answer to that question. And, first of all, she hasn't been sworn in, so she's not yet under the aegis of the council as a whole. The swearing in is Sept. 6 for both the council and for the new county executive, but -- and the council -- and the charter is fairly, I would say, quiet on the issue of getting rid of members who might have either been accused or, better yet, convicted of some kind of malfeasance. The council itself would have to hold a public hearing. There would have to be a two-thirds vote. And so far, as far as we can tell, the charter really only addresses physical or mental disability. It does not talk about possible felony convictions.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, she was not as well-known as her husband, who has been in Prince George's County politics for a long time. This is her first time in elected office. And even though she will be allowed to take her seat, she takes her seat with this hanging over her, and that conceivably can limit her effectiveness as a county legislator until such time as this is resolved.
SPIVACKWell, I think that's true. And also the people who she's supposed to represent, will they be getting full-time, undistracted representation from somebody who has to be meeting with attorneys and working out a defense? I think that's another question. The other thing that's sort of inside baseball but interesting is that Johnson supposedly is part of a coalition that was going to oppose the county council's vice chairman, Andrea Harrison, to become chairman. And one of the rumors -- and this is absolutely rumor -- but...
NNAMDIWe traffic in that here.
SPIVACKOkay. Well, we can traffic in a little -- is that Leslie Johnson was very eager to become chairman of the committee that would oversee development in the county and that part of this coalition may have been willing to make that happen. Again, you know, that's not provable, so I want to be careful about that. It would not be surprising though. She's an attorney, and even before these events, that might be a good place to put an attorney -- particularly not one, though, who might have a cloud hanging over her.
NNAMDIIt's not unfair to say that Jack Johnson has been a polarizing figure in Prince George's County, but there's the other side of the coin that you mentioned earlier. He has been credited with bringing development there from the National Harbor complex to a new Wegmans grocery store. Crime rates have dropped. What have the people that you've spoken to in Prince George's County had to say about what this arrest means for his legacy in the county?
SPIVACKWell, I think a lot of his supporters -- many of whom are very fine, upstanding people -- are in a lot of pain right now. During the election, there were a lot of people who really did want to go for Michael Jackson, who was something of a protégé of Jack Johnson. They really thought that a lot of what Johnson had done was helpful to the county's image, and bringing in development and making things happen was something that had sort of eluded some of his predecessors. And so this whole notion of putting Prince George's on the map as a retail and tourist destination, which National Harbor certainly does, is something people are proud of. And, you know, it is painful to them to see this now linked to somebody who is under this ethical and legal cloud.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with Miranda Spivack. She's a reporter at The Washington Post who covers Prince George's County. What does this case tell us about where developers in the business community fit into Prince George's political structure, if you will?
SPIVACKWell, there's a -- you know, it's not just this situation. This is an old, old story in Prince George's. We wrote a lot about it on Sunday in the front page of The Post, that there's a long history -- again, partly because Prince George's was much more rural than some close-in suburbs. And so development came more slowly to Prince George's. It still has a large, you know, area of open land and some farming communities. So developers have always played a role, and, again, not just in Prince George's. You can look at Loudoun County. You can look at Montgomery County. There's -- developers are always playing a role in politics, both in helping finance candidates, helping play a careful role or not -- maybe perhaps not such a careful role in writing legislation that would affect development. You know, their goal is to encourage development.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Rodney in Beltsville who asks, "Can you imagine what the immediate future of the county would be like if Michael Jackson had won? It seemed like Johnson's machine actually made a pretty good run at it for a while. I was intrigued by the fact that the county executive never openly endorsed Michael Jackson, yet it was an open secret that he and his 'machine were supporting Michael Jackson.'"
SPIVACKYeah, actually, the weekend right before the primary, he did come out and endorse him...
SPIVACK...but it was very late. You're absolutely right, and it was an open secret that Jack Johnson was supporting Michael Jackson, the sheriff. But Jackson also worked hard to try to be his own person, or at least appear that way, although he had a lot of Jack Johnson's people working on his campaign. And one can surmise that perhaps some of those thought they might work in a Jackson administration if that were to come to pass. Michael Jackson, as you know, had a sort of his own set of issues, including some...
NNAMDIThe killing of dogs of the mayor...
SPIVACK...issues of dogs. Right. And then...
SPIVACKMayor Cheye Calvo.
SPIVACK...waived warrants -- the issuing of warrants that were way, way behind. They had tens of thousands of unserved warrants. And although he said that many of them were for parking violations, it still did not sit well with a lot of people. And there was one very tragic case where a warrant was not issued, and then a young woman was killed -- one might think somewhat directly related to the fact that the person who killed her should have been actually in jail at that point, and -- but that the warrant had never gone out.
NNAMDIHow is this case likely to affect the momentum of development in the county? Does it mean necessarily that reporters, like yourself, will be looking at development a lot, scrutinizing it a lot more closely than before? Because as you pointed out, these kinds of rumors have been around, well, forever in Prince George's County.
SPIVACKYeah, you know, I think the fact that this FBI investigation appears to be at least four years old tells you something about how much it takes to make a case. And the economic slowdown, interestingly enough, has slowed development everywhere in the region and not the least in Prince George's. So it could be -- although I don't know -- that the last few years have been a little more quiescent on that front than previously. I mean, in the boom years, there was lots of money and lots of campaign contributions and a lot of different projects floating around. And with this new administration, which has pledged this ethics reform long before these indictments and -- or charges came out, you know, we'll see where that really takes the county. The county has money problems, too, like every other jurisdiction in the area. And so, that can always play a role in how things play out as well.
NNAMDICertainly gives incoming county executive Rushern Baker the mandate, if you will, that he seeks to clean house. He'll now be able to say, I'm cleaning house here with good reason. But we'll have to see what he says later today at his news conference.
NNAMDIMiranda Spivack, thank you for joining us.
SPIVACKOh, thanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIMiranda Spivack is a reporter with The Washington Post who covers Prince George's County. We'll take a short break. When we come back, "Selling Ideas for the Public Good," we explore the craft of public service campaigns. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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