Tag Archives: Prince George’s County

‘Honest Prince George’ Strikes Again

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 16, 2017 – Back when I was a naïve and newbie political reporter covering the Maryland General Assembly in the early 1970s, I was baffled when legislators joked in lounges and hallways about “Honest Prince George.”

I found out soon enough it was a jovial but derogatory reference to the questionable “pay for play” politics practiced by some leaders of Prince George’s County.

Rapid land development and the county’s population explosion made the Washington suburb prime ground for under-the-table payoffs to elected officials who got builders construction permits and re-zoning approval.'Honest Prince George' Strikes Again

Straight-arrow Prince George’s senators and delegates would join in the verbal State House sparring about their “honest” county, but they knew better than most what was going on.

Now “Honest Prince George” has surfaced again.

Blown Cover

Arrests by federal prosecutors so far have nabbed a liquor board commissioner, a longtime former councilman and a yet-to-be-named state legislator involved in a bribery and payoff scheme.

Will Campos, a ten-year councilman and ex-delegate resigned his state post in 2015 after only nine months in office, realizing the feds were hot on his trail.

He pled guilty earlier this month to taking nearly $50,000 in payoffs to direct $325,000 in county funds to business owners over a seven-year period. On one occasion, he was handed a white envelope in the bathroom of a College Park restaurant. It was stuffed with $3,000 in cash.

Another ex-delegate, Michael Vaughn, turned in his resignation letter last Wednesday due to “ongoing health challenges” – like avoiding a long prison sentence (clearly not good for your health).

Prosecutors say one of their targets is a delegate who voted in committee to extend Sunday liquor sales in Prince George’s as part of a bribery scheme. Vaughn was the only county delegate on that committee who voted in 2015 for that Sunday liquor-sales bill.

More shoes will drop as federal investigators continue the latest Prince George’s County corruption probe.  It’s certainly been a lengthy, and sad, saga.

Baggett First to Fall

The first bigshot in Prince George’s to fall was Jesse Baggett, chairman of the then-all-powerful Board of County Commissioners during the county’s massive land-development boom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Baggett went to prison in 1971 for taking a $3,500 bribe from a builder in exchange for help on re-zoning.

The county became ground zero for the headline-grabbing Marvin Mandel racetrack scandal in which the secret sale of a county half-mile track in Upper Marlboro formed the case against Governor Mandel and his co-defendants, including a prominent county lawyer, Ernest N. Cory, Jr., who lied repeatedly to the state racing commission about the Mandel group’s ownership of the track.

This unsavory reputation by county leaders helped unseat many of them in the 1970s. Leading the reform group was Steny H. Hoyer, now the county’s longtime congressman, and an influential lawyer-politician, Peter F. O’Malley.

Yet the smell of money proved irresistible for a few. A veteran state senator, Tommie Broadwater, went to prison for food stamp fraud. A delegate, Leonard Blondes, was found complicit in a bribery scheme.

A one-term delegate and county councilman, Tony Cicoria, stole $65,000 in campaign contributions, lied on his tax returns and then while on the council went AWOL for 13 months to avoid arrest. Cicoria eventually was nabbed in Florida  where his return to Maryland was delayed by local charges of using a phony drivers license.

Good old “Honest Prince George.”

Johnson’s Shame

In the 21st century, the most flagrant offender has been former County Executive Jack Johnson, who used his office to extort $1.6 million from developers during his eight years in office.

When Johnson and his wife, herself a county councilwoman, were arrested by the feds, Johnson was shouting at his wife to stuff illicit cash into her bra and panties and to flush the rest down the toilet. (Officers recovered $79,600 from Leslie Johnson’s undergarments and another $100,000 from the water closet.)

Then there was the sad case of current Sen. Ulysses Currie, accused of using his office and committee chairmanship to twist arms for his client while getting a kickback worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currie beat the rap, but not without humiliating himself with a defense that claimed Currie was too dumb to be dishonest.

And of course there was Tiffany Alston, who avoided criminal punishment by resigning as a state delegate 2012 after she stole thousands from her campaign fund to pay herself and cover her wedding expenses.

Constant Surveillance

Unfortunately, a few politicians in Prince George’s continue to regard elective office as a way to enrich themselves through quid pro quos.

Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County and Baltimore City, have similar shameful histories – witness the recent indictment of Gary Brown, Jr. on the eve of his appointment as a state delegate for laundering $18,000 in campaign contributions for his boss, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, through his relatives.

At least Prince George’s voters had the good sense to elect a reformer, Rushern Baker, as county executive to help clean up the mess left behind by Jack Johnson.

Still, the ballooning liquor board scandal points to a continuing problem in the county that will need constant surveillance and scrutiny to scrub Prince George’s County of its “pay to play” reputation.

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O’Malley Keeps a Political Promise

newcarrollton-photo

By Barry Rascovar / May 30, 2013

IT WILL BE COSTLY for Maryland taxpayers but never let it be said Gov. Martin O’Malley reneges on a political promise.

This time he rewarded Prince George’s County politicians for their support during his initial run for governor in 2006. They wanted a state agency to relocate to their county and now they’ve got it — at a price to taxpayers of $60 million over the next 15 years.

As for politicians in Anne Arundel County (mainly Republicans), the Democratic governor gave them the political shaft: 380 employees of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, two-thirds commuting from Anne Arundel or the Baltimore area, will be forced to drive to New Carrollton starting in mid-2015.

Even worse, they will vacate a state owned-and-operated building on the grounds of the former Crownsville State Hospital outside Annapolis that is in fine shape.

Instead of paying $1.5 million in current operating costs, the state will fork over to a landlord 60 percent more — nearly $4 million annually. That equates to $40 a square foot — more than what it would take to lease premium water-view offices in Baltimore.

The state also is footing the bill for $357,000 worth of parking spaces for HCD workers for the first five years. Parking is free at Crownsville.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who revels when shams such as this pop up at the Board of Public Works, rightly compared the situation to a home owner with no mortgage suddenly moving out and renting similar space for an outrageous sum. It makes no sense — unless you’re a politician.

The excuse for this move is “Smart Growth.” Prince George’s County holds vast potential for “transit oriented development.”  Yet unlike neighboring Montgomery County, there are no large-scale TODs in Prince George’s. O’Malley wants to jump-start that process with a state-supported building at the New Carrollton Metro-Amrak-MARC hub.

Plans to do the same thing a few years ago fell apart because of the state’s poor choice of a developer. The entire procurement process was re-started.

What has evolved is a wonderful concept for the New Carrollton station in which the state plays the role of catalyst. That guaranteed $4 million a year in rental money will subsidize 40,000 square feet of retail space and 250 apartments, plus a second phase essentially doubling those components.

Whether any of this peripheral activity becomes reality is the big, unanswered question. If a mixed-use project at New Carrollton or at other Prince George’s Metro station were a can’t-miss proposition, there would be no need for the state to play Santa Claus.

Where the state dropped the ball is in Crownsville. The Department of General Services botched this entire episode first with the flimsily vetted initial procurement  and now with its lack of planning for the fate of the Crownsville property and HCD workers who don’t want to make this long commute.

Why hasn’t O’Malley targeted redevelopment of the 400-acre Crownsville campus as an economic priority over the past seven years? Probably because he didn’t want to help Republican officials who dominate the county. Still, the lack of a Crownsville master plan is a black eye for the governor.

Long before this matter reached the Board of Public Works, the state should have laid out an assistance program for HCD workers. And seven years is plenty of time to put together a comprehensive “Smart Growth” plan for Crownsville. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In the end, O’Malley delivered on his long-standing promise to Prince George’s political leaders and left unhappy HCD workers wondering about their future. They became sacrificial lambs. As for the future of the Crownsville building and surrounding land, that’s a problem O’Malley is leaving at the doorstep of the next administration.