(This is the third of a four-part memoir of journalist Timothy W. Maier’s career covering Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and then working for the county as a media contractor.)
About a half dozen Prince George’s County Executive’s campaign advisers and his communication team met at a Greenbelt hotel a few months before Jack B. Johnson’s term was about to expire in 2010. We all knew this was a meeting where he would give a glimpse of where he envisioned himself.
From covering Johnson years ago when he decided to jump from Deputy State’s Attorney to become Prince George’s County State’s Attorney, he told me he always wanted to get to the Hill – that’s where his future political ambitions rested.
He might never have had that discussion if he didn’t capture the State’s Attorney office in the early 1990s. His campaign then lacked the one coveted endorsement he desperately wanted – from his boss Alex Williams, the first African-American State’s Attorney in Prince George’s County, who later became a federal judge.
Williams wanted the judgeship badly and didn’t want to publicly endorse Johnson to hurt his chances. Johnson was making new enemies daily, especially the bench, which was critical of Johnson’s administration.
The judges privately began to push a rising African-American star in the prosecutor’s homicide department – Dwight Jackson, a former newspaper man with the Kansas City Star.
Others wanted a return of the old guard calling to bring back Korean war hero Arthur A. “Bud” Marshal – the man who prosecuted George’s Wallace’s failed Milwaukee assassin Arthur Bremer. But Prince George’s County was changing dramatically – it wasn’t about to go back to a white sea of politicians and decision-makers.
When I asked Johnson why he hadn’t received Williams’ endorsement, Johnson marched me into Williams’ office and said, “Ask him.”
Williams didn’t officially endorse Johnson, but he said he would make a good state’s attorney. The next day I wrote a front-page story for the Prince George’s Journal that said Williams believed Johnson would be a good choice.
“That was the turning point,” Johnson told me, beaming with smiles when I met him years later in his county executive office .
“That got me elected,” Johnson told me in front of some of his closest advisers as he went to go his private stock of wine.
“I should have hired you, Tim, a long time ago.”
And then the discussion turned uncomfortably strange. He turned to one of his community advisers and said we need to bring me on board – full time. “What do you want? $100,000? $125,000? What’s it going to take?” he asked while pouring a glass of room temperature burgundy wine.
The community adviser said he could afford my ticket, but that meant letting go of someone on his staff whom he thought should find a new line of work. I stood in silence – not knowing how to say no and not knowing how to say yes. Meanwhile, they were going to fire someone right before my eyes.
Community liason or campaign worker?
Whenever I hear community adviser or liason, I think back to the Alexander Williams bid to become a federal judge and a conversation I had with the FBI. Williams’ judgeship was delayed for what seemed to be an eternity while the FBI conducted a probe. It wasn’t exactly clear what the probe was about, but I do know an agent spoke to me about a story I wrote concerning two suspected “ghost employees” who were hired to do community liason work under Williams’ administration.
The two suspected ghost employees reportedly never were around the office, but collected a check anyway. They were however, heavily involved in campaigns and supposedly dealing with community concerns. It was a lot of gray area, but it passed the FBI’s litmus test. But was this another reason Williams didn’t want to throw an official endorsement toward Johnson?
Because as a deputy state’s attorney, Johnson was the one who got involved in the hiring – especially when it had to do with community positions. Community positions often were jobs that handled complaints in the community and helped set the stage for re-election.
I remember asking Johnson’s spokeman Jim Keary what these positions did when I started working in the county. I would pass their offices every time I walked into the media room and they were never there.
Keary paused for a long time and said, “They are out there in the community.”
“What’s that mean?,” I asked.
“Community stuff. I don’t know.”
He advised me not to take the offer.
The job was being offered at a time when the county put a freeze on hiring and other jobs were being terminated. The job wouldn’t last long – even if it was legit. When you serve at the pleasure of a lame-duck politician, you are on the street when he leaves office unless he can hide you away in a job that the new county executive might not even know exists.
Johnson knew those people who served him would be on the street, and to his credit, he did try to move people so they would have a place to go. A lot of staffers working there – may not like Johnson, but without him, they might not have had the career that they are having.
When ever I visited the upstairs where Johnson and Keary had offices, it was a sea of empty desks. Supposedly people working in the community, but others said they were out looking for jobs.
Johnson managed to move a few of his staff to other communication positions. Some had gone to be flak at the jail, and some were eying the Homeland Security flak position held by retiring Royce Holloway, known as the old Sarg , who served as a police spokesman for so many years before taking the “gravy” job.
I asked Keary: What does a Homeland Security flak do?
“Coordinate for eight hours a day,” I asked.
“All the emergency situations.”
“Are we really facing a terrorist attack, Jim? What if there is no emergency? Then what do they do?”
“Meetings and such.”
I also discovered later the job allowed whomever was hired to improve their golf swing along with all that coordination stuff. It reminded me a lot of those community positions.
And I’m not a golfer so my decision for that community offer was easy.
I couldn’t accept it.
It just didn’t seem ethical.
I already had gotten a taste of the kind of campaign tactics done and wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of it – especially on a bigger scale.
Campaigning, dirty tricks, and passports revoked
Johnson’s supporters did what they could to get Michael Jackson elected county executive. They simply did not like Rushern Baker. They wrote letters for people in the community who then would send them to the newspapers to publish. No editor ever asked the residents if they actually wrote the letters. In fact, they rarely called the “letter writer” to verify.
This was a common practice. Few news publications bothered to follow up and to check to see if these letters really came from citizens. Other initiatives included reaching out to businesses who could make donations to online news publications to get reporters to cover particular events or regions and reaching out to the blogosphere and having anonymous blogs promoting Johnson and other candidates Johnson supported while attacking the press and other politicians who were a threat to Johnson. All of this was volunteer and off the county clock. I don’t know if Johnson was even aware of some of the tactics engineered by his own staff.
Johnson’s county attorney Mike Herman helped behind the scenes on the Jackson campaign. But Herman was becoming less visible around the county office during this lame-duck year. He seemed disinterested – almost as if he knew something was going to happen down the pike.
Herman and Johnson had a history together. Herman worked under Johnson at the State’s Attorney office. Johnson brought him along for the county ride when Laura “Guns” Gwinn, rejoined the prosecutor’s office after serving as the county attorney. Gwinn never respected Johnson – maybe because he prosecuted one case while working as a state’s and deputy state’s attorney. That was a forgery case. He lost it.
Or maybe because he got caught writing a bad check at a local store and threatened the clerk and the manager by using his office not to prosecute cases involving the store. When the store refused his check, he snapped, “Do you know who I am?”
The clerk just knew him as someone who was trying to pass a bad check. He walked away from that story bruised in the press but it did little damage to him among his core of supporters.
Herman, like so many of Johnson’s trusted advisers and supporters, left because of Johnson’s lame duck status. He took a job in Annapolis. When Johnson threw Herman a going away party at a tavern in Upper Marlboro, one line kept going around. What was Herman’s biggest accomplishment?
More than one came up to me and whispered: “Keeping Jack out of jail.”
Johnson’s own political campaign was a testing the water during his last year in office. Johnson was obsessed with his legacy – something he could use as a launching pad for his next move. I was tasked with essentially writing a “legacy book” as well as rewriting Johnson’s biography for the website and placing an article of Johnson in a New York publication. I also wrote promotional newsletters and a few speeches to colleges and the chamber of commerce – discussing the state of the county’s economy.
It was my job to promote the county, but at the same time, to promote Johnson’s track record of AAA bond rating, crime reduction and economic development – all positive things that Johnson touted wherever he went.
The goal was to generate local press coverage. Community newspapers was where the politicians felt they had to get positive press as compared to The Washington Post. Local Channel 8 was also watched religiously. In fact, when they broadcast a negative story on Johnson, I had to let people know that so few people watch local news that it really won’t matter unless Johnson wants to make it an issue.
The elections were won in the community newspapers – not in the Post, which rarely covered the county. In fact, when the Post held one of its community meetings in the county– hardly anyone showed up, Keary would proudly say. The Post had done some solid work in the past – breaking stories on expenses in the county such as officials spending taxpayer money on lingerie, taking family Ocean City trips and other controversial expenditures. It broke the FBI probe story and wrote about the the pay-for-play allegations as well as Johnson hiring questionable applicants to key posts and the 2008 FBI raiding developers and senior Johnson officials’ homes and businesses. But between 2008 through 2010, The Post coverage appeared to be shrinking as its metro staff started to shrink as well.
The Post had many Maryland Public Information Act requests from 2008. Those documents were gathered and placed in an office not far from my office. The Post never collected hundreds of pages of those records that could have been a goldmine for reporters.
When The Post reporters did call on a rare occassion, Johnson’s top spokesman Jim Keary would ask me to sit in and listen as he put them on speaker phone. We’d sit and wait for reporters to ask the one question we thought might be damaging. They never did. They never did their homework prior to making those calls. And Jim Keary was a master of spinning them in a circle and not giving them any information that would make his boss look bad. The number of stories Keary was able to kill in hindsight might have been the best publicity for Johnson.
But when The Post did write an editorial attacking Johnson, the first reaction was to get me to pen an Op-Ed in Johnson’s name that went after the media. I eventually convinced Johnson and Keary that this was not a good approach. The media always has the last word. Instead, I advocated for taking the approach that yesterday’s story is old news. I told them we needed to look forward and I suggested promoting an issue I was writing about for the Constant Contact newsletter – speed cameras.
I was polling residents in the weekly newsletter about speed cameras and it seemed natural to take a stand. I told Johnson and Keary to get positive press that Johnson needs to come out against speed cameras. Call them what they are – an attack on the poor – revenue machines. Johnson already was leaning that way and probably didn’t need my encouragement. He came out strongly against speed cameras in school zones and low income neighborhoods, which was not the popular Annapolis stand. The Washington Post gave him positive ink on the bottom right of the front-page fold.
I was telling Keary that the speed camera issue can get someone elected – it’s that much of a hot-button issue. So Johnson taking a stand on this and constantly battling Gov. Martin O’Malley started many of us to believe he was eying the governorship. Johnson was friends with former Gov. Robert Ehrlich and discussed politics with him more than once and it seemed likely this was a safe bet.
Keary also told me Johnson had planned to make trips to Baltimore to win over voters. Democrats were getting beat in Massachusestts and O’Malley’s numbers were falling like the economy. Johnson had more of a conservative agenda – and started envisioning himself as running as an independent and dumping the Democratic party.
Meanwhile the office started getting strange calls from reporters. One particular call came from a television station that was about to air Johnson’s passport had been revoked. The suggestion was that the FBI was finally closing in on the case. Johnson had walked by the office when Keary and I found about this possible upcoming story. Keary asked Johnson about it and the reaction was quite strange.
Johnson was in the middle of a phone conversation and just brushed it off as if it was no big deal. He then left, and I asked Keary, do these type of calls come frequently? Keary said Johnson is always under attack from wild allegations.
Perhaps that explains why Johnson brushed off the allegations, but still if a local TV station was going to air this, it was going to be all over the newspaper tomorrow. Did Johnson care?
A few minutes later Johnson walked back into Keary’s office and said, “I don’t know anything about the passport story.” He then excused himself because he was running late.
Keary told the reporter to check the facts before running the story, because to Johnson it appeared to be another fishing expedition. The television station backed down from the story.
I told Keary I was stunned at Johnson’s reaction. I couldn’t get over it. The FBI case is not over, I told Keary. In 2008 they have conducted at least three raids, including the businesses and residences of council members, lobbyists, fire department officials and developers.
“Jack never got a letter, saying the case is over,” I told Keary.
“They got nothing,” Keary said. ”You know what I told The Post about the raids,” he said. ”This is, what, the third fishing expedition? They have not yet caught even a minnow.”
Keary then burst into laughter.
“Tim, you know me, I wouldn’t work for him if I thought he was dirty. Tim, you don’t know Jack.”
If he’s innocent, I guess the passport story wouldn’t rattle Johnson, I thought. Perhaps, he’s used to the attacks, God knows, I wrote some of the most critical stories about him as a reporter and it just bounced off of him. Maybe I made him immune. And maybe he’s too busy focusing on his next move. Perhaps, that’s what that phone call was about when he brushed off the passport allegation. He was supposed to go to Baltimore to woo voters and maybe he was just making arrangements for his next campaign.
But what is he running for? Back at the Greenbelt hotel, he broke the news to his trusted political advisers and his communication team. We sat in shock.
Was he delusional?
(Read Part 4 of the memoir.)
(To read the second part of the series click here.)