(This is the fourth 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. (Feature photo by Michael J. Yourishin)
This is crazy.
Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson was going to take on the biggest Democratic machine in Maryland. He was going after Sen. Barbara Milkulski.
Plenty of rumors had been circulating that Mikulski was going to step down and retire. Even a blog picked up by the Baltimore Sun suggested she was calling it quits.
Eventually, Milkulski reassured her loyal supporters this was not going to happen. Then more rumors circulated, suggesting she would retire during her term so the Democrats could hand-pick her successor.
Not the case either.
With all these rumors circulating, Johnson became convinced she was beatable by a black politician. He figured he could capture the black vote with his strong church base and he figured enough voters were tired of her liberal ways that he could grab those Ehrlich Republicans as well. She was 75 and he was 62. He was convinced Milkulski was past her prime and change was in the air.
“Milkulski raised only $12 million last election,” Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson told his trusted local and New York advisers. “I can do that.”
“But Jack,” I said. “She wasn’t running against anyone. If she viewed you as a threat – and I’m not saying she will – she can raise twice as much if not more. She has the Clinton/Pelosi money behind her.”
Johnson said he didn’t plan on challenging her on the party ticket. He would enter late as an independent and get Ehrlich to support him and keep his core of Democrat voters – enough in his mind to swing the election.
Some of his New York advisers urged him on.
His top spokesman, Jim Keary, and I looked at each other in a state of shock.
Both of us thought he was going to take a shot at the governor’s race. We weren’t convinced he could win that race, but would make it interesting – and perhaps suicidal in his own party because he would be taking on a Democrat – and someone with White House ambitions in 2016.
We even suggested a congressional race would be a better opportunity. But Johnson would have none of that.
He never saw himself as a congressman. Congressmen to Johnson were like a lieutenant governor, they had no real power.
We left that meeting knowing we would have to do what Johnson had asked us to do awhile back when we weren’t working on the clock – contact Harris polling and check the pulse of the voters.
I was amused Johnson was considering to run for another office with the FBI probe ongoing.
I remember asking Keary, “Did Jack get the letter telling him the case is over?” They do that when he is no longer a target of the probe.
Keary said flatly, “No,” and repeated his fishing expedition quote that he threw out when anybody asked about the case. “They have yet to catch a minnow,” he said belting out a laugh.
Johnson can’t even win his own county
When we met with Harris polling on the outskirts of the county in secrecy, Johnson didn’t want people to know about his next move. Over lunch, Johnson said to create a poll with different scenariossuch as running for congress, senator and governor. Keary was thinking Johnson also should consider running for comptroller because of his economic and tax background. He began his legal career in the offices of the IRS.
Governor seemed to be the best opportunity where he wouldn’t get as blown out of the water because Democrats at the time were falling in other states. But to make it competitive against O’Malley, Johnson needed a strong running mate to pull in Baltimore voters unless he would consider running for lieutenant governor with Ehrlich on the top ticket.
It was felt that Ehrlich’s last few running mates actually hurt him and didn’t give him an edge. Johnson needed a lieutenant governor with a name.
Discussions ran wild. What about Cal Ripken Jr. as a running mate with a campaign that brings gym back to school? Johnson’s eyes lit up. “Do you think he would do it?” he asked.
In the end it didn’t matter. The poll was put together and the Harris pollster informed us of the results about a week later: “Jack, couldn’t win.
“What race?” I asked.
“Every race. He can’t win his own county.”
Try telling that to the county executive or his circle of friends that the county of 860,000 residents didn’t have his back.
His closest advisers continued to tell him how much he is loved in the county. But whenever I stepped out and talked to the community that love wasn’t there. In fact, even when I talked to people in the office – some doing communications for Johnson – they didn’t trust him. They thought he was a crook and questioned every trip he took, including the people he brought along, especially to Africa.
The communication team members took their frustrations out on Keary because he had them working at times around the clock with little regard to their personal lives. His communication team would work on a project for weeks only to find that it has been scrapped by Johnson or Keary. Vacations were interrupted and weekends were rarely free. ”You can never plan a weekend with your family here,” one of the communication specialists said. “They order you to work at the last second. Who does that? God, I hate working for Jim.”
They resented Johnson’s wife, Leslie, who tried unsuccessfully to boss them around. And many in the office thought Leslie lacked street smarts and just came across as a little slow. She would tell the team to do something and they had a problem with that. She was not their boss and they made it known.
They were so understaffed that Keary was becoming one of the most unpopular employees in the county. Even when I went to social media meetings, many were frustrated with Keary because he didn’t fully embrace social media – such as using Twitter. Keary, likewise, was frustrated with so many departments because they would send out sloppy press releases from people who had no business trying to write. Keary wanted me to teach the flaks how to write, how to effectively get the same message out, and how to use social media. He was going to get them all together. But in a lame duck year, it was clear Keary had given up hope on accomplishing that. Instead, we lived in chaos.
His staff had sensed that Keary had checked out along with most of the Johnson’s administration as his term began to wind down. But their resentment didn’t stop. They privately wondered, if Johnson gets busted, can they even put that they worked for Prince George’s County on their resume? How bad will it hurt them, they wondered? And they wondered, what does Keary know?
If Keary had stood up to his boss just once in front of his staff, he would have gained a sea of admiration. But he never stopped defending him until it was too late. Keary either chose not to see the corruption, or simply had no clue. On more than one occasion, Keary told me that he believed Johnson was one of the most honest men he knew – and as a reporter Keary broke a lot a dirt on other county executives and politicians. But it was so hard for me to buy that.
In Keary’s eyes, Johnson was clean.
Many in the community viewed Johnson as dishonest – someone you had to pay to get development projects or businesses to operate in the county. Some were tired of his hiring practices, claiming he would hire his own cronies and sign off on jobs they had no business doing.
Keary defended Johnson to me repeatedly, saying the county directors made the hires and Johnson had nothing to do with it.
But ultimately isn’t he responsible? I would ask.
Polls didn’t lie
How do you tell those poll numbers to Johnson? Those numbers contradicted what his advisers told him. The poll said bluntly that voters who put him into office didn’t want him. In fact, Harris said, if term limits didn’t exist, he couldn’t even get elected to County Executive again.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to tell him the numbers. He saw the poll. It was over for Johnson. No more elections.
The next few weeks my role as a communications specialist was winding down and my workload was being siphoned off . I had a 1,000-hour contract and it was coming to a close and I felt as though I was being pushed out. A state of the economy speech I had written with the slogan “Putting People First” was discarded.
I was removed from writing the legacy piece on his administration – much to the disappointment of those who were designing and putting it together – and much to the happiness of myself. Johnson turned to a longtime police flak to take over the writing duties, including the “Legacy” piece.
The last county event I attended was Johnson delivering that state of the economy speech that sounded like a retirement speech where he spent the first 30 minutes thanking people. The audience was restless. He rambled on for so long it made Bill Clinton’s speech to the 1988 Democratic convention seem short.
At that time, I realized Johnson knew his political career was over. That speech was supposed to launch him into the next campaign – the next fight. Instead it was like a funeral.
I snuck out of the building knowing I had less than a few weeks to work for the county. I spent the last few weeks finishing up some research and newsletter assignments.
During my last week, I had reiterated to Johnson’s communication team and to Keary that the FBI probe was far from over. That most likely the FBI will not do anything until after the election – especially since Johnson had put his support behind Michael Jackson and not his arch foe Rushern Baker.
I said it was similar to Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon when she was eventually charged and convicted of stealing gift cards earmarked for poor children. The FBI does not want to this to be a case about race – or in Johnson’s case impact a political election because voters might mistakenly believe Michael Jackson was involved in Johnson’s escapades.
After the election, the FBI will come knocking, I told Keary.
“Tim, you don’t know Jack,” Keary would tell me over and over again.
But I left the building for the last time saying under my breath in frustration, “Jack don’t know Jack.”
A few weeks later after my contract ended, Keary phoned. Johnson was arrested on November, 12, 2010, in the pay-for-play scandal that haunted his career for so many years. The arrest was a tragic comedy. The FBI had stopped Johnson and asked to see his cell phone and question him about $15,000 he just received from a developer. He said the money was for his retirement party while handing over his phone. The FBI checked his phone and gave it back to him and let him go.
A short time later Johnson’s wife Leslie called him after two FBI agents knocked on her door. Johnson instructed her to flush a $100,000 check from a developer in the toilet. It apparently never crossed his mind they bugged the phone and perhaps his office as well. Leslie asked what should she do with the thousands of dollars of cash. I couldn’t help to think about what Johnson’s communication team told me about Leslie. She just wasn’t the brightest bulb in the county.
“Put it in your bra and walk out or something, I don’t know what to do,” Johnson told his wife. The FBI agents searched Leslie and recovered $79,600 from her underwear. She was arrested along with her husband and later sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison.
The FBI hauled the couple away in handcuffs while a plumber unsuccessfully attempted to retrieve the check from the toilet.
The one ironic moment that stuck in my head was the FBI found copies of the Legacy article in his home and thousands of copies found in a warehouse. The taxpayers picked up the tab for the Legacy articles to the tune of more than $200,000. I was relieved I was removed from that assignment. Johnson had planned to mail copies to residents to remind them what he had accomplished and to set the stage for a Senate race.
I didn’t have to say, I told you so to Keary. I just said to Keary, “You finally got your picture in the Washington Times,” the newspaper where he worked for so many years. In the photo Keary was standing in front of podium in a state of shock.
Keary threw up a trial balloon to me, suggesting maybe the money was for a retirement party. “No one has that much cash around,” I told him.
He could no longer defend his boss. He finished his days and quietly returned to his home state - Arkansas – with a nice pension from the county.
On Dec. 7, Johnson limped into a courtroom to face his sentencing. The courtroom overflowed into the halls and special seats were arranged. No one wanted to say they were there to support Johnson who walked through the rain into court using a cane and claiming poor health. His defense talked about his roots in South Carolina – stories that he had told me about how racism prevented so many blacks from achieving so much. How he struggled and fought for everything he achieved.
They talked about some of the great things he did for the county – economic development, AAA bond-rating, and lower crime rates. It sounded as though it was ripped from something I wrote for the county. Johnson was someone who made it and shined a light for others to follow, but started struggling with health and alcohol issues, they said. They even went as far as to suggest that Johnson’s health is so bad that he will likely die in prison in a few years. No one bought that as the crowd appeared to say in unison, ‘C’mon Jack.’
“In my wildest dreams, I could not imagine being in a place like this. I worked so hard for the people of this county and I achieved so much,” Johnson said with his voice slightly breaking.
He asked the court to look at his overall record in public service and take pitty on his rapidly declining health. His lawyers said that Johnson recently had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was getting worse. Prosecutors showed medical reports suggesting his symptoms might eventually develop into Parkinson’s and that he doesn’t have the disease. Prosecutors then talked about how Johnson had recently played a full round of golf while the defense countered that he needs to exercise, bringing a slight chuckle to those watching it on closed circuit television.
U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte didn’t buy any of the health excuses and said the good works Johnson may have done as an elected official mean nothing here and sentenced him to seven years.
“If you’ve done them, good for you,” Messitte said. “That’s what you were elected to do. You were not elected to line your pockets, you were not elected to corrupt the system the way you did.”
The 31-page indictment shows that Johnson had steered millions of dollars in federal and local funds to developers in exchange for bribes. He worked to secure a job at the county hospital for an unqualified doctor in exchanged for bribes from a developer. He was found to have used extortion to get campaign contributions from developers. In lieu of him leaving office, he attempted to obtain a high-ranking management position for an official at the local hospital in exchange for a health care consulting contract for himself.
“This defendant used anything and everything within his power to line his pockets,” prosecutor James Crowell said. Johnson obstructed the investigation and lied when confronted on the day of his arrest by FBI agents about $15,000 he had just received. He said the cash was for a party celebrating the end of his tenure – the similar trial balloon that Keary suggested to me.
“If Jack Johnson’s story were a Hollywood screenplay, critics would say it’s too bizarre to be true,” U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said after the hearing.
Of all the charges laid out against Johnson, he spoke vehemently against one of the allegations – still trying to set the record straight. Proseuctors said he pushed for zoning changes for Tick Tock’s liquor store owner who paid him bribes and agreed to contribute to his wife’s campaign for county council. Johnson said it was quite the opposite. That he didn’t want to extend hours to a liquor store because of the crime around that establishment. His argument didn’t persuade the court. But he wasn’t arguing for leniency on the last charge. He was arguing ironically for his legacy. Johnson wanted to be known as the county executive who reduced crime – not the one who committed crimes.
But Johnson failed to understand that his legacy is not what he has done for Prince George’s County but what he did to the people.
He didn’t put people first. Jack B. Johnson put himself first.
(To read the third part of the series click here.)