$100K Down the Toilet; Scandal Rocks D.C. Suburb as FBI Investigates

Jack Johnson/wusa
By Allan Lengel
For AOL News

The former school superintendent is behind bars. County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife are whisked away in handcuffs by FBI agents, after authorities say she flushed evidence in the form of a $100,000 check down the toilet. And a few days later, three county cops are indicted in an FBI probe linked to the county executive — a probe that has all the markings of a much bigger scandal to come.

This is no obscure county in the middle of Nowheresville, U.S.A. It’s Prince George’s County, 498 square miles with more than 800,000 residents, long considered one of the most affluent African-American majority counties in the nation. It’s home to the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field and the University of Maryland. And it borders Washington, D.C.

Still, for all the good in the county, including some first-rate neighborhoods and a major new hotel, shopping and entertainment complex on the Potomac River, it has long fought hard in the public relations game and often come up short, battling nagging negatives.

Over the years, the police department was plagued by allegations of excessive force. The crime rate spiked a few years ago, with homicides hitting a record 173 in 2005, just 21 short of Washington’s tally. In 2008, Schools Superintendent Andre Hornsby was convicted of steering contracts to a girlfriend and a business associate in exchange for money. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

And now this.

“I think this situation has been extremely embarrassing for Prince George’s County, ” said Mel Franklin, a newly elected County Council member who will take office Dec. 6, the same day new County Executive Rushern L. Baker III replaces Johnson, who was prevented from running again because of term limits. “It worsens the perception that we have a pay-to-play leadership, particularly when it comes to development. And it comes at a particularly bad time when we have a change in leadership. This is really an unfair distraction.”

Still, those like Jim Keary, a former reporter and current press spokesman for Johnson, think the PR battle for the county has always been played on an uneven field.

“The only time the media shows up in Prince George’s County is for something negative,” says Keary, who will leave the job when Johnson departs. “There was never any balance. We have the lowest crime rate in 35 years right now. Have you seen any banner headlines on that?”

Keary is not alone.

Phil Lee, a self-described community activist and advocate, said, “I’ll tell you, strange enough, honestly I find people appear to be more upset or aggravated with the press to some degree, because I think what people say is everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The reality is, the county executive has always had a very good relationship with the community.

“You find people who believe he [Johnson] is going to be vindicated. And people who think there will be a long, ugly, drawn-out trial and that does not serve us well. Nobody really likes this.”

The latest development took many by surprise. Johnson, 61, a former state’s attorney for the county, was elected county executive in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006.

He pledged to make the county more livable and cleaner. He also worked hard to change the image of the police department, which some residents saw as overly aggressive. Additionally, under his tenure, the county got an impressive AAA credit rating and attracted the massive National Harbor development on the Potomac.

But Johnson had his share of detractors, and for years there had been rumors of federal and state investigations into the hiring of friends and questionable relationships between Johnson and developers.

Then, late last week, FBI agents took away Johnson and his wife, Leslie, in handcuffs. The arrest capped a drama the FBI captured on a wiretapped phone conversation between Johnson and his wife on the day of the arrest, just as FBI agents stood outside their door waiting for someone to answer. Johnson’s wife was home.

According to the FBI affidavit, Johnson had on different occasions allegedly taken a $100,000 check, $5,000 in cash and $15,000 in cash from a developer. So as FBI agents waited outside, according to police, Johnson told his wife to flush a check from a developer down the toilet and hide the cash in her underwear. She told him it was in her bra. Agents finally came in and found it in her underwear — more than $79,000, according to the affidavit.

As if the county needed another blemish, three days later, nine people — including three county policemen — were indicted in an FBI sting in which the cops allegedly helped protect and sell untaxed cigarettes and liquor. One cop was indicted on drug trafficking charges. Federal authorities said publicly the investigation was linked to the Johnson probe, but didn’t elaborate.

A federal law enforcement source told AOL News that Johnson’s name came up during the FBI investigation into police corruption and the sale of untaxed cigarettes and liquor. A liquor store owner, who was one of the nine people indicted, told an undercover FBI agent in the case that he had given Johnson $40,000 to take care of a problem he had getting a permit for a property he owned, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the case’s sensitivity.

And one of the officers indicted, who worked off-duty as a security guard for the liquor store, told the undercover agent during the sting that Johnson was on the payroll of the store and was all about the money, the law enforcement source said.

As for Johnson, Keary, his press spokesman, says his boss insists he’s innocent and wants to finish up his term. In fact, on Monday, a few days after getting arrested, Johnson showed up for work.

“He and his family are doing well,” Keary said. “He received visits and messages from hundreds of people who told him to remain strong and faithful and finish what he started.”

Keary said he wished the media would report on such things as the county’s AAA bond rating. “The image of this county would be much better,” he said.

County Council member Franklin says of the Johnson affair, “I’m very disturbed by the circumstances that arose last Friday. They’re very difficult for anyone to just explain away.

“That’s why it’s very important that our [new] leadership be adamant that corruption in Prince George’s County cannot be tolerated,” he said.

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