As we’ve observed here a few times before, nothing gets a legislator in the mood for regulatory action like press accounts of one of their own getting busted for pocketing a few dollars in exchange for government largess. One could hardly second guess Prince George’s County, Maryland for following this predictable pattern. In this case however, the funds forming the catalyst for action weren’t “pocketed” - they were “bra’d”.
Last November, the Washington, DC area was somewhat titillated by news reports that Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Prince George’s County Councilwoman-Elect Leslie Johnson had been arrested by the FBI in connection with an investigation into allegations that certain real estate developers in Prince George’s County, Maryland were bribing public officials in exchange for official acts benefitting the developers and their companies. The FBI moved in, it was reported, when their wiretaps overheard Johnson instruct his wife to flush a developer’s check for $100,000 down the toilet and to conceal another $79,600 in cash in her bra.
Regardless of where the money went, the result was inevitable - pay-to-play legislation.
In an interesting symbiotic pairing, corrective legislation is moving through the Maryland General Assembly at precisely the same pace as Prince George’s County Council member Leslie Johnson moves through the Maryland criminal justice system. On March 25, 2011, the very day the Justice Department filed new criminal charges against Johnson for conspiracy to commit witness and evidence tampering, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed House Bill 614 in response to the Johnson episode.
What makes the Maryland legislation unique is the approach taken to remedy the harm inflicted on public confidence in local government. The easy approach would have been to enact feel-good prohibitions against developer interactions with county executives. Such legislation is easy to pass but is exceedingly difficult for well-meaning citizens to comply with and often does little to prevent the truly nefarious bad actors who simply “find another way”. As the team at CityEthics.org correctly observed, the problem in Prince George’s County was not as much with the private sector but rather an inadequate ethics program and unique powers to hold up development unless a payoff is made:
But there can be no pay-to-play without special powers. Developers only pay when they have to. And there can be no special powers without a very poor ethics environment. It's a vicious circle, and it appears that Prince George's County is caught up in it.
House Bill 614 goes a long way towards addressing these issues, and does so by placing limitations where they belong, on the county executives who are perceived to have abused their far-reaching powers for personal gain. According to the Washington Post the County has long housed “complaints that past councils have operated secretively, threatening developers that their plans would be held up indefinitely unless they offered concessions or hired an associate of a council member.” If signed into law, the current legislation will severely curtail the County Council’s ability to shelve development deals and enhance the County’s ethics commission by installing a full time executive director and require regular meetings.
This strikes us a sensible approach, targeted to address a clearly identified problem, that does not place undue hardships on the honest 99% in the private sector who have succeeded in keeping their knickers clean.