- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

The Prince George’s County government is facing a stream of accusations about bribery, cronyism and criminal behavior that has residents and politicians shaking their heads in disbelief.

“It’s real crazy,” said James Dennis, a 31-year-old computer technician in Greenbelt and lifelong county resident. “You need to screen people thoroughly [for government jobs], but you can never tell what someone is going to do.”

The accusations reach into almost every branch of the county government and include claims of misconduct, such as shakedowns, money laundering and public schools Chief Executive Officer Andre J. Hornsby’s steering a million-dollar contract toward a company that employed his live-in girlfriend. Mr. Hornsby resigned from his $250,000-a-year job Friday amid an FBI investigation into the deal and in advance of an outside audit expected this week.

The number and the severity of the accusations, especially in the past five months, befuddles and upsets state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky.

“It’s not the drinking water,” the Prince George’s Democrat said. “I can’t say it is all because of one individual. I think part of it is, you set an example from the top. … When you play near the edges, other people think they can play near the edges, then go over the edge.”

Mr. Pinsky said his criticism is not aimed specifically at County Executive Jack B. Johnson, but at the county leadership in general.

“In a number of cases, they have let down the people,” Mr. Pinsky said.

The claims come at a time when Prince George’s County also is experiencing a wave of violence.

As of last week, the county reported 70 homicides, compared with 48 at this time last year, and 256 carjackings, compared with 173 by this time last year.

Although such problems have hurt the county’s image and overshadowed its successes, officials say the county continues to grow and improve.

“There are a lot of good things happening here and people know that,” said Johnson spokesman James P. Keary.

“Unemployment is down, school test scores are up, and there is a lot of excitement about development. … As for our image, we have people beating down our door to live here,” he said.

Mr. Hornsby’s legal problems are related to a June 2004 deal in which he bought $1 million worth of educational software and other materials from a company that employed girlfriend Sienna Owens as a sales representative.

An ethics panel cleared him, but school board members were waiting for the audit results before deciding what, if any, action to take. With Mr. Hornsby voluntarily stepping down, the audit’s chief impact might be in whether the schools get $40 million in state aid withheld because of overdue financial audits.

Mr. Hornsby isn’t the only school official under scrutiny.

Pamela Hoffler-Riddick, an assistant superintendent, is on unpaid administrative leave while awaiting trial this summer on charges of money laundering for a $20 million drug network along the East Coast and in the South.

More problems arose last week, when state prosecutors seized files and computers from county offices in connection with a probe involving Robert L. Isom, deputy director of the Environmental Resources Department, and Robert L. Thomas, deputy director of the Office of Central Services.

They are suspected of shaking down a security firm seeking a county contract.

Mr. Johnson fired Mr. Isom, who made $93,303 a year, and Mr. Thomas quit his $103,530-a-year job several weeks ago.

“I am extremely outraged and disturbed by these allegations,” Mr. Johnson said. “Unfortunately, there are people who will use their official capacities for personal gain. That will not be tolerated.”

Even Mr. Johnson has been the target of a corruption investigation.

He was accused last year of withholding $5 million from Prince George’s County Hospital Center as leverage to place one of his friends in a high-paying hospital job, but has since been cleared.

“Prince George’s County has very high tax rates, and they spend like crazy,” said Dee Hodges, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association.

“When you have government that has a lot of money to spend, they are not very careful with how they spend it.”

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