By RABIAH ALICIA BURKS and JUSTIN KARP, Maryland Newsline/CNS
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (December 3, 2010)With just three days remaining until new members of the Prince George's County Council are sworn into office, the status of Leslie Johnson's District 6 seat remains in question.
Johnson the council member-elect who was arrested Nov. 12 with her husband, County Executive Jack Johnson, in a federal corruption probe is being urged by some members of the council and by Republican Party officials not to take the oath of office Monday morning.
"Under the circumstances, it's inappropriate for her to do so," District 3 Council member Eric Olson said in a phone interview. "We have a lot of important work to do, and the scandal is going to serve as a huge distraction from the important work of the county.
"Having a cloud over it makes it only more difficult."
Olson acknowledged that while the county does not have any legal recourse to block Johnson from taking her seat, the council could internally take measures to limit her influence on county business. "It's up to the chair to decide which committees you're seated on, and what you're assigned to," Olson said.
County Council member-elect Mary Lehman, District 1, echoed Olson's sentiment, saying that Johnson should spare the county "further anguish" and not take her seat on ethical grounds.
"It is the right thing to do," Lehman said in an e-mail. "It would allow the rest of the council and the county to move forward and address the pressing issues we are facing."
Mykel Harris, chairman of the Prince George's County Republican Central Committee, agreed. "If she was truly interested in doing what is best for the county, she would step down," he said. "If she's interested in seeing to her personal interests, she'd stay where she is."
Johnson, like all members elected to the nine-member County Council, is a Democrat. Repeated attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.
Council member-elect Karen Toles, District 7, said in a statement that the judicial process should play itself out judgment is passed on Johnson's ability to serve on the council.
"I am very troubled and deeply hurt by the allegations of corruption in Prince George's County," Toles said in a statement released Tuesday. "I must refrain from judgment and will refer to the judicial system as the appropriate trier of law and fact."
The Prince George's County Charter states that if a council member vacates his or her position, the county must schedule a special election to fill the seat within seven days, according to council spokeswoman Karen Campbell. That election would take place no more than 90 days after the vacancy, according to county regulations.
The head of the state Republican Party joined the chorus of local officials saying Johnson should not take the oath of office Monday morning.
"Everyone's innocent until proven guilty, although the facts on her are pretty devastating—the fact that she was stuffing money in her bra and flushing checks down the toilet," said Audrey Scott, chairwoman of the Maryland State Republican Central Committee. Those allegations were contained in an FBI affidavit supporting the arrest of the Johnsons.
Scott added, "I think to respect the office that she should resign."
Unless Johnson can prove the allegations are an absolute fabrication, she should decline to take her seat, said Harris, the county GOP chair.
As a council member, Johnson would be responsible for managing county resources and voting on county land use and zoning, Harris said.
"Who is going to trust her vote on anything?" Harris asked. "Everyone, whatever her vote, is going to be looking at that cross-eyed, wondering why she voted for it and whether she was paid to vote for it, or was it an honest vote."
The Johnsons were arrested Nov. 12 in a countywide corruption probe that three days later ensnared nine other people, including three Prince George's County Police officers. The Johnsons were charged Nov. 12 with evidence-tampering and destruction of records.
Leslie Johnson was detained by the FBI at their family home in Mitchellville after her husband, the county executive, told her to flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet, court documents allege. She stuffed $79,600 in cash into her bra as FBI officials were knocking on the front door, documents say. Earlier in the day, Jack Johnson accepted a $15,000 payoff from a developer in exchange for his "official influence and authority," court documents allege.
Jack Johnson has maintained his innocence since his arrest, and Leslie Johnson's lawyer also said after her Nov. 12 court appearance that she was innocent. The two are expected back in court Dec. 13 for preliminary hearings.
Their arrests mar what has been a long record of public and community service for both.
Before winning the District 6 seat on the County Council in November, Leslie Johnson, 58, spent 27 years working for D.C. government. She served as an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor and a legislative liaison for the District, before taking a role as a hearing officer with the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking.
Years of documents show that Johnson ruled on dozens of cases involving the license status of insurance brokers throughout the D.C. area. Documents listed on the department's website show that Johnson last ruled on a case in March 2009.
She graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1973 and has been an active member of the Washington Fisk Alumni Association. "Mrs. Johnson has been an avid supporter, giving us her time seven days a week, after her full-time job," said Gloria Elliott, president of the WFAA. She said Johnson participated in association activities for more than three decades and helped purchase books for Fisk students.
She earned her law degree in 1976 from the Howard University School of Law, where she met her husband.
Jack Johnson is completing his second four-year term as county executive; he steps down Monday, when Rushern Baker III is sworn in. Before his 2002 election, he served eight years as county state's attorney.
He earlier worked as a tax professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law and as a senior attorney in the Office of Chief Counsel with the Internal Revenue Service.