News of Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson’s arrest has spread like a wildfire throughout the county, igniting a mixture of emotions among the area’s denizens from scorn to disappointment to amazement at the ballooning scandal.

FBI agents arrested Johnson, 61, the outgoing county executive and one of Maryland’s premier leaders, and his wife Leslie, 58, Nov. 12 in connection with illegal conduct in what the FBI described as “official corruption and extortion in Prince George’s County” involving real estate developers.

Both have been charged with tampering with witness and evidence relating to the commission of a federal offense; destruction, alteration and falsification of records in a federal investigation; and aiding and abetting, with some of the charges carrying maximum sentences of 20 years each.

“As a resident, I am disgusted,” said 28-year-old Duane Henderson of Largo. “I’d already begun to see the decline of the county with these developers. It made no sense to bulldoze hundreds of thousands of acres of land to build things that were not in demand, but now I get it.”

Johnson maintained his innocence in a press conference after the hearing Friday, while his wife’s attorney, Roland Patterson asked the public for its support.

“Mrs. Johnson asks for all of your prayers and support for the family as she goes through the ordeal of fighting to disprove the allegations that are pending against her,” Patterson said.

County Executive-elect Rushern Baker quickly offered his reassurances that he would provide transparency in government and would do his best to eliminate corruption and waste in government. While he acknowledged his sadness with the developments, he asked county residents to keep their heads up through the scandal.

“Despite recent events, these are not sad days,” Baker said. “But the alleged acts of a few in no way should deter the direction of all Prince Georgians ready and eager – in fact excited – to move this county from good to great.”

Baker, who was Johnson’s chief rival in two consecutive elections, could’ve taken the opportunity to bash Johnson as the two men’s relationship has been frigid at best. Instead Baker highlighted indicators of the future health of the county.

“We remain focused on the ‘kitchen table’ issues that our residents care about – job growth, transit oriented development, new business opportunity, comprehensive health care improvements, and, of course, top ranked schools,” he said. “We have to make it happen and will make it happen here.”

Prince George’s Police Chief Roberto Hylton was less forgiving. He had to witness three of his officers, Sgt. Richard Delabrer, Cpl. Chong Chin Kim and Officer Sinisa Simic, being taken away in handcuffs on Nov. 15 in a sweep that saw a total of nine people arrested.

Delabrer and Kim were charged with conspiracy to interfere with commerce by extortion while Simic was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and conspiracy to possess a firearm in the furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Hylton has repeatedly said he will not tolerate misconduct in his department and is not too thrilled with the developments.

“I am outraged at the disgraceful conduct demonstrated by these officers who tarnished our badge for their own greed and personal gain,” Hylton said in a statement. “The majority of our officers are hardworking men and women who put their lives on the line every day in service to our community; we rely on the public trust and will not tolerate even one employee who breaches the oath of office.”

Residents and officials now brace for the worst as U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said more charges and arrests would be forthcoming after the latest roundup on Nov. 15. Rebecca Sparkman, IRS Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, says any public figure committing crimes will be held accountable.

“Public officials must comply with the same laws as the citizens they serve,” said Sparkman in a statement. “The IRS-Criminal Investigation is helping to ensure that all Americans, including public officials, are held to the same standard.”

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO