Prince George’s County seeks its ethics watchdog -- Gazette.Net


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Prince George’s County is moving closer to starting up a new watchdog of local government as some residents question whether the office has the resources to tackle corruption in the county.

The county’s office of Ethics and Accountability was created in part at the urging of Rushern L. Baker III (D) who lobbied for the office during his successful bid for the county executive seat in 2010. Baker’s campaign promise came on the heels of outgoing County Executive Jack Johnson coming under fire after a far-reaching corruption probe implicated him as taking more than $400,000 in bribes in exchange for favors with developers. Johnson was sentenced in 2011 to more than seven years in prison. Johnson’s wife, Leslie Johnson, a former county councilwoman was sentenced to more than a year in prison for her involvement in the pay-to-play scheme.

The county’s new office will be tasked with finding such corruption, as well as fraud and abuse. By mid to late January, county officials will start the search for the office’s leader and three staffers — a deputy director, administrative assistant and investigator. The four will be responsible for dealing with allegations of fraud and abuse for a county government that has a budget of more than $3 billion and employs around 6,000 people, according to county records.

“I want to have someone in the office very quickly. I'm glad the council was able to move on this,” Baker said. “We’ve started collecting resumes already.”

Prince George’s County Council unanimously passed the bill creating the office in November. The office is authorized to start working on Jan. 20 but staffing the office will most likely take until the spring, said Brad Frome, Baker’s deputy chief of staff.

The office was funded during the last budget cycle to have an initial budget of roughly $396,000, Frome said.

Joan Pitken, a Bowie resident who represented District 23 in the House of Delegates from 1979 to 2003, said Prince George’s office has a daunting task, considering its limited resources.

“It's a real David and Goliath situation but I think it’s a start,” she said. “It's a big uphill climb.”

Montgomery County and Baltimore city have similar offices of the inspector general. Montgomery County’s office was established in 1997 while Baltimore’s was created in 2005. Both offices have six staffers, according to records from each agency.

“It’s not a standard position that exists in most or all county governments,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, an organization that represents the state’s counties.

The department will have the power to compel testimony from county employees and demand documents from county agencies, according to the legislation. Additionally, the county is spending more than $100,000 to pay for a new state attorney in the county’s state’s attorney office whose primary duty will be fielding cases dealing with corruption or fraud in the county government, Frome said.

Judy Robinson, a community activist in Hyattsville, said the two-year delay from promising to set up the office bothered her.

“After Jack Johnson, people needed to see a very serious effort and they needed to see it very early in his administration and I think he's blown it,” she said. “It sounds to me like they've set this up as a toothless commission. Quite frankly, I think it’s for show.”

Both Baker and County Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D. Dist. 5) of Springdale described the passage of the legislation this year as a highlight of 2012. Creating the agency required time to properly lay it out and define its abilities, Harrison said.

“You don't just throw something out just because you want to do it,” she said. “We’re creating a whole new department. The reality of putting this in place is [it’s] time-consuming and you have to make sure you're doing this to the best of your ability.”

amccombs@gazette.net