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How Pols Really See Voters: ATMs

I need to draw your attention to two extraordinary pieces of reporting by Post Metro reporters that make it crystal clear just what your elected officials really think of you: You're nothing but a cash machine, dispensing dollars to all comers.

This week's remarkable piece by Cheryl Thompson on the way Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson and several members of the County Council use their taxpayer-provided credit cards to pay for all manner of personal purchases reveals utterly brazen abuses of the public trust. As Thompson reported, Johnson, who was reelected with hardly a second thought by Prince George's voters, charged the taxpayers for his hotel room while attending his father-in-law's funeral, for dinner at Hooter's in Florida (after being caught, he then claimed it was the first time he'd ever been to a Hooters. At least he didn't claim he was conducting his own investigation into how women are demeaned!), and flew business class to Senegal ($6,000) on your tab. And then Johnson has the gall to tell the Post that "I always fly business class or first class. I think the people of Prince George's County expect me to. I don't think they expect me to be riding in a seat with four across and I'm in the middle."

Oh, no, that would be just horrific. Can you imagine what it would be like to sit in the middle, I mean, between ordinary members of the great unwashed masses? The mere thought of such a predicament is bone-chilling.

As if David Harrington, the Democratic Prince George's council member who made a public show of his support for Republican Michael Steele in this month's Senate race, didn't already have enough troubles for that act of betrayal to his own political party, it now turns out that Harrington is also not shy about charging his dry cleaning, video rentals and even airplane tickets for his son to the county's taxpayers. The county's beancounters contend that Harrington reimbursed the county treasury for those charges, but they couldn't come up with any paperwork to back up that assertion.

There was not even a pretense of paying back the taxpayers in the case of County Council member Thomas Hendershot, who routinely charges the county's residents for his annual vacations in Ocean City. Here's his deal: He goes to a conference of local officials, which the county pays for, and he rents a six-bedroom, five-bath house that runs $2,650 and charges the county for half of it. His theory is that the county would otherwise be paying for a hotel, so this way, he gets to stay a few extra days. There's perhaps some merit in that explanation, but then Hendershot loses credibility, as he confirms that when he has taken his wife on county trips, he has billed Prince George's for her meals. "She has to eat," he said.

Wow.

Well, if you think that's bad stuff, check out Dan Keating's story on the D.C. Cable TV office blowing $6.5 million on a technical upgrade so fabulous, so wildly over the top that other publicly funded cable channels around the country were flabbergasted at the waste. The District is spending the money on high definition TV equipment that is so pricey and fancy that the director of Boston's city cable operation said, "The cost would be huge without a measurable improvement in picture quality. . . . Our capital planning/budget office would probably shoot me," said Boston's Michael J. Lynch.

This upgrade comes along with a $996,000 no-bid consulting contract with a company that will now use the city's new studio--remember, paid for by the D.C. taxpayers--to produce its own for-profit programming. The city will get a cut of the profits, but still, what we have here is the D.C. taxpayers being forced to go into the TV production business, with no public benefit of any kind, purely to support a private venture that will then have an unfair competitive advantage over private companies trying to make it on their own. Federal law requires that cable franchise fees be used for public service and government access.

Where's the outcry from the newly elected mayor and council members on this?

And there's more: Keating has learned that the company getting this sweet deal, Mason Media, has photos on its web site of District-owned TV equipment as if it belonged to Mason Media, including DC's satellite truck, on which the company superimposed a Mason media logo.

Sorry to have caused any pre-Thanksgiving indigestion, but I figured you should see this now, before the big meal.

By Marc Fisher |  November 22, 2006; 7:44 AM ET
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Comments

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It would have been nice to have seen some this BEFORE the elections...

Posted by: cb | November 22, 2006 8:01 AM

Senegal? Damn, I'm jealous.

Posted by: Wanna | November 22, 2006 8:31 AM

Do not bother subscribing to the Washington Post if you live in Lexington Park, MD.

I have not had a paper delivered for the last two weeks, the delivery subcontractor does not acknowledge or return phone calls, and neither does the Washington Post.

Don't waste your money paying for a product not delivered.

Posted by: Don't Bother | November 22, 2006 9:35 AM

I hope the Post will continue to press hard in Prince George's County. Who is being held accountable in the Office of Finance and the Office of Budget and Management?

And regarding Jack Johnson's "no-bid" contracts - I guess there's little chance of the County Council exhibiting any oversight now, huh? I just see an immature game of "well, you robbed the citizens too so NAH NAH"

Posted by: Largo, MD | November 22, 2006 9:40 AM

I'd love to see a similar piece of investigative reporting in Fairfax County. I believe the Board of Supervisors are all up for re-election next year. I would be nice to know if they are similarly lining their pockets with taxpayer money before the election.

Posted by: Reston, VA | November 22, 2006 9:42 AM

"As Thompson reported, Johnson, who was reelected with hardly a second thought by Prince George's voters..."

Just to correct this point, Johnson ran unopposed in the general election, but won the Democratic primary over Rushern Baker by only about 52-48. Charges of corruption by Johnson and his administration were one of the key components of Baker's campaign. Fisher ought to know that, like in DC, local PG County offices are usually determined in the Democratic primaries and not the general election.

Posted by: Bowie, MD | November 22, 2006 10:38 AM

African American council members and politicians in Prince George's are upset because they don't represented at the top of any state wide seats in th elections. They say the Democratic party takes advantage of them.

And with this kind of behavior, paying for personal expenses and the like with tax-payer provided credit cards, provides a reason why said PG County politicians should look in the mirror and ask themselves why they aren't at the top of the party's ticket again in the next election.

Posted by: just a thought | November 22, 2006 12:59 PM

For this citizen, Johnson was hardly re-elected without a second thought. Even though he was the only person on the GE ballot, I did not vote for a man that I have never had any respect for (I did a write-in). Reading about the credit card abuses was not even a surprise but it did disgust me. This makes me wish that my fellow county residents would not be so content with the status quo.

With 173 murders, more car thefts than some states and county services that do not serve residents of the county (Katrina victims could get more service than we could), we should want better in Prince Georges. Are we supposed to settle for Target when we wanted Nordstrom's? The only reason we got Macy's is because of the merger/buyout of Hecht's. The article in Ebony magazine (11/06 issue) hardly painted an accurate picture of life in this county.

I have tried to be an involved citizen and will continue to be as long as I am a resident. However, I am ready to give up on this parade of shenanigans. Other counties may have some issues, but at least Fairfax has its schools to fall back on and Montgomery has its commercial development. What does Prince George's have that will benefit more than one-half of the county's residents?!

Posted by: new carrollton, md | November 22, 2006 1:13 PM

Previous comments about Johnson's hotly contested primary are spot-on, and show the comment that he was re-elected with hardly a second thought to be at best a very selective presentation of the facts. What it did provide was an opportunity to trash PG County voters with a flip remark sure to be repeated by those with short memories or no knowledge of the facts.

Posted by: CW | November 22, 2006 1:54 PM

Your colleague, Micheal Wilbon, only flies first-class. He brags about it in his weekly chats. I guess I missed your taking him to the woodshed. As for Mr. Johnson, he won renomination by a few hundred votes, he nearly lost. His election as the Dem candiadte, of course, was a foregone conclusion.

Posted by: RL | November 22, 2006 2:55 PM

If you think there's waste in Prince George's County government, you ought to take a look at Montgomery County.

Posted by: Montgomery County Resident | November 22, 2006 2:58 PM

To Reston: The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors lines their pockets with developers' money.

Posted by: NAC | November 22, 2006 3:06 PM

All those expressing outrage here and over at the Thompson piece might want to recalibrate. I don't condone the sleaze, but in the overall scheme of things this is pretty small, and I recognize that if they can get away with little sleaze, big sleaze will follow.

Hendershot, Harrington, and Exum account for $122k of the $196k, or $240 each a week for 42 months. The other six members weigh in at $73 a week each, AND we don't know how much, if any, has been repaid, and by whom. I am just amazed that Marilyn Bland is not cited, I thought she specialized in this sort of stuff.

People seeking an investigation, rather than complain to the County, might do better contacting the Office of State Prosecutor in Towson.

As for JJ and his first class flights, write it off as a lesson hard learned. No one will remember him anyway. Just note that JJ wiseguy, David Whitacre, says that JJ's travel receipts have been destroyed because County rules do not require they be retained.

Ballot Question #1 for 2008, change the damn rules

Posted by: Count Bobulescu | November 22, 2006 3:22 PM

If the city is going to hire and retain good people, they ought to have the latest production equipment to work with. I wonder at the carping we get from reporters when they realize that someone else is on an expense account.

Envy?

Posted by: Gary Masters | November 22, 2006 5:10 PM

There is a big $ discrepancy between the figures reported in the WaPo piece of 11-20, and a Gazette.net piece of 08-31-06. The Gazette numbers are much higher.

At first, I thought it was an apples/oranges comparison, as between total credit card spending and just personal expenses on County cards, or different time periods, but it doesn't seem so.

The WaPo piece says: "It is impossible to know from the records what some of the charges are for, how many are personal and, of those, which have been repaid".

WaPo says nine council members collectively spent $196k between 2002 and 2006. The Gazette says that Marilyn Bland alone spent $298,070 since 2002. An explanation please WaPo/Gazette.

For now, I'll disagree with Marc Fisher's claim that the 11-20 article was an extraordinary/remarkable piece of reporting, particularly since little brother Gazette beat WaPo to the punch BEFORE the elections. Location, Location, Location.

The Gazette pieces are here:

http://www.gazette.net/stories/083106/princou195033_31946.shtml

http://gazette.net/stories/112206/landnew185531_31977.shtml

But then the Gazette piece below says that Marilyn Bland has shown no evidence of credit card abuse while repeating the claim that she was the top spender. This sort of reporting is giving voodoo economics a good name. I'm bewildered/confused.

http://www.gazette.net/stories/112406/poliiss155642_31981.shtml

Posted by: Count Bobulescu | November 23, 2006 3:55 PM

To "Montgomery County Resident," (who I suspect is Robin Ficker but I would be delighted if I were mistaken) please provide examples of waste in Montgomery County government. Otherwise, you are just sucking wind.

Posted by: get real | November 24, 2006 10:58 AM

The people keep voting these clowns back into office.

We had a GOOD opportunity to replace the ethically-challenged Jack Johnson with squeeky-clean Rushern Baker.

Johnson won the primary almost immediately after the Post stories of his under-cover no-bid contracts for unqualified cronies.

And some of the crooks and thieves on the Council ran unopposed.

We in PG County have the best government a toilet can flush.

Posted by: CEEAF | November 27, 2006 6:17 PM

"Your colleague, Micheal Wilbon, only flies first-class. He brags about it in his weekly chats. I guess I missed your taking him to the woodshed."

Well, the Post is a corporation, not a government. They're only accountable to their stockholders.

" As for Mr. Johnson, he won renomination by a few hundred votes, he nearly lost. His election as the Dem candiadte, of course, was a foregone conclusion."

You've identified the main part of the problem.

Posted by: CEEAF | November 27, 2006 6:19 PM

Of note is that after the swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 4, Lady Exum is designated to become Chair of the County Council and Prince Harrington is slated to become Vice Chair. If the County Council goes forward with this "move" -- I guess the citizens of this GREAT County are truly doomed. Will anyone volunteer to do the research on a "recall"?

Posted by: Lanham Resident | November 28, 2006 11:50 AM

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