11.17.10 Legal Corruption in Montgomery County

This is cross-posted with the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

How delicious it was to read about Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson being carted off in handcuffs the other day. It feels so good to see the arrogant get their comeuppance. I have trouble accepting how shady populists keep getting re-elected (four county-wide victories for Johnson). Even before the cops had enough evidence to arrest this guy, his character was apparent. All I needed to know came a couple of years ago when his high spending of county funds on personal pleasures was being looked at and it was found that he had been jetting around in first- and business-class. He responded: “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.” Nice.

So, what does this have to do with Montgomery County? Only the source of the corrupting influence: the development industry. I’m not about to claim that the leaders of my apparently better-governed county are carrying wads of developer cash in their bras or flushing $100,000 checks down the toilet. Nope, the system in MoCo is far more insidious. Here, it’s not (or doesn’t seem to be) about direct cash to politicians in exchange for specific actions. Rather, it’s about the overwhelming amount of the money for political campaigns’ coming from that one industry.

A study of the 2002 county elections by Neighbors for a Better Montgomery showed that county council candidates on the infamous, hyper-development End Gridlock slate were receiving between 56 percent and 72 percent of their campaign funds from developers. In a state with the 44th worst campaign-finance disclosure laws in the country,  politicians don’t have to tell us where they’re getting their money. But it doesn’t take a PhD to guess that when one industry exerts such dominance over elections, it is getting something in exchange.

The-best-political-system-money-can-buy is hardly a local phenomenon. Nationwide, the ultra-wealthy get special service for their cash, something that now appears to be permanently locked in stone following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. But at least on the national level, it isn’t a single industry – without any competition – calling the tune. In MoCo it is.

And the local problem is exacerbated by two newspapers that never met a paving project they didn’t like. The Post and the Montgomery Gazette (which is also owned by The Washington Post Co.) love to go whole hog after the public employee unions for skewing local politics (have you ever seen so many double-size editorials in a year as the The Post has run against the MoCo teachers’ unions?). At the same time, they ignore entirely candidates who don’t toe the developers’ line (Marc Elrich in 2006, Sharon Dooley this year).

The MoCo political culture is corrupt in its own way, and it is aided and abetted by Democrats in Annapolis who prefer pay-to-play over campaign-finance reform and their allies in what passes for a fourth estate. Make no mistake: MoCo is just as corrupt as Prince George’s. The only difference is how the game is played.

©2010 Keith Berner

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