By ABBY BROWNBACK
ANNAPOLIS (November 20, 2010)Prince George's County legislators insist that recent criminal charges against the outgoing county executive and several others will not put the county at a disadvantage when the legislative session begins in January.
"Hopefully we can explain it's a new day," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's. "Most people in Annapolis know (County Executive-elect) Rushern (Baker), and he'll get a pretty good hearing."
Senate President Mike Miller, a Democrat whose district includes part of Prince George's, said the General Assembly would be sympathetic to the county, which is in financial trouble and has been tarnished by ethics problems, including the Nov. 12 arrests of County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, County Council member-elect Leslie Johnson, on federal charges of tampering with evidence and destroying records.
The legislature, Miller said, might enact tougher ethics laws that would restrict contributions from those applying for zoning decisions. But the state can only do so much, he said, and will partner with Baker and the new county council to continue growth in Prince George's.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, said he wasn't sure the Johnsons' charges were relevant to the legislative work of the county's delegation in Annapolis. Instead, he cited confidence in Baker and the election of new council members as heralding "a new day in Prince George's."
"The governor and legislators are very excited about Rushern becoming county executive," Rosapepe said. "The governor is very supportive of Prince George's."
Prince George's officials have long said the county's problems lie in its perception, and Pinsky admitted Prince George's has a reputation as a county that struggles with crime and poverty - "the stepsister in the Washington, D.C., region."
"Hiding money doesn't make our county look good," Pinsky said. "There has been talk of pay-to-play. I'm not surprised it's coming to light."
In Prince George's, there has been a perception of a culture of pay-to-play requiring developers to cozy up to the right county officials in order to secure federal funding, have contracts approved, or win government jobs.
Many officials are reticent to talk about the charges, Miller said, because there could be more arrests stemming from FBI investigations in the county.
"Most of us are pretty certain other indictments will be handed down," he said. "The situation's unclear in terms of where it stops and who's involved."
Joseph C. Green, Jr., the executive vice president of lobbying firm G.S. Proctor & Associates, said the perception of the county hasn't affected the firm's ability to lobby for its clients in Prince George's.
"Ninety-nine percent of people involved in Prince George's County government are above this," Green said. "The perception issue is overblown."
The bigger problem, Pinsky and Rosapepe said, is the state budget.
But with county representatives - Sens. Douglas Peters and Ulysses Currie - on the budget committee, and in light of the almost 8-to-1 ratio at which county voters supported Gov. Martin O'Malley in his bid for re-election earlier this month, Pinsky said local leaders "should be able to get (O'Malley's) ear."
"We won't be hesitant to remind him of the role we played in his re-election," Pinsky said.
Currie is also facing federal bribery charges in a case involving his consulting work with Shoppers Food and Pharmacy.