Leslie Johnson sworn in to council office
Husband by her side at ceremony amid members' criticism
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In her first public appearance since being arrested last month on federal charges, Leslie E. Johnson was sworn in Monday as the Prince George's County District 6 councilwoman at a ceremony in Upper Marlboro.
About 1,000 people attended the ceremony, as Johnson and the eight other council members and County Executive Rushern L. Baker III were sworn into office.
Johnson (D) took the oath of office with her husband, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), by her side. The couple made no remarks during the 90-minute ceremony.
The Johnsons were charged Nov. 12 with witness and evidence tampering by federal prosecutors. Agents allege the couple was taped by phone destroying a check from an unnamed developer as FBI agents arrived at their Mitchellville home. According to the criminal complaint, Johnson called his wife and told her to find and flush a $100,000 check down a toilet, and Leslie Johnson was found with an additional $79,600 in cash stuffed in her bra.
The charges are part of a three-year investigation into public corruption in the county.
In the month since the arrests, lawmakers and residents have argued about how lawmakers will interact with Leslie Johnson, who is legally allowed to assume office despite the charges against her. Under state law, lawmakers must step down only after they are convicted or plead no contest to a crime. The county charter only allows lawmakers to be removed if they are physically or mentally unable to continue their jobs.
Her District 6 seat includes South Bowie, Capitol Heights, District Heights, Forestville, Kettering, Largo, Mitchellville and Upper Marlboro.
Five of the nine council members have opposed Johnson taking the seat, saying her presence will be a distraction and embarrassment to the county. Others, including new council members Obie Patterson (D-Dist. 8) of Fort Washington and Karen Toles (D-Dist. 7) of Capitol Heights, said they respect Johnson's decision to take her seat.
Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Marlton, who was one of the first members to speak out against Johnson, said the group is discussing strategies for how to appropriately treat the accused lawmaker. He declined to give details.
"The County Council is mindful of the perception created by the scandal, and will act accordingly," he said.
Baker, a longtime Jack Johnson political rival, made no direct mention of Johnson during his inaugural address, where he promised "a new day" for the county by reforming education, public safety and development.
"We will build upon our successes," Baker said as he talked about new construction in the county. "But our philosophy will not be that you know somebody, but on smart policies."
Baker has declined to comment on Leslie Johnson's arrest and role in the county, saying he is focusing instead on his own plans as leader.
The Johnsons' supporters were vocal before the ceremony, crediting the former executive and his wife with helping grow the county.
"Away from their personal affairs, they've done good for the county," said Hazel Leslie of Temple Hills, who said the Johnsons actively supported older residents in Prince George's.
Leslie Johnson said she's been happy with the county's improvements on schools and lowering crime over the past eight years, as well as intense outreach the couple have done with residents.
"I care about these people and love them," she said. "You don't just throw them to the wolves."
But others said they worry that having Leslie Johnson in office will affect the county's attempts to end a perception of backdoor deals, retaliation against critics and favoritism for supporters.
"It does put a cloud over the county," said Rodney Jones of Brandywine. "She deserves her day in court. But I don't think she should take office."
Leslie Johnson is expected to appear with the rest of the County Council at a special public meeting Tuesday, when members will vote on their next chairperson. Members have said she may cast the tie-breaking vote between Councilwomen Ingrid Turner (D-Dist. 4) of Bowie and Andrea Harrison (D-Dist. 5) of Springdale.
Turner, Harrison, Patterson and Toles were also sworn in at the ceremony outside the County Administration Building, along with council members Mary Lehman (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel, Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville, Eric C. Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park and Franklin.
Marilynn Bland, the county's clerk of the court-elect, performed the oaths of office. Bland, who just completed an eight-year term on the County Council, is currently facing assault charges filed in November by a former county employee. Bland has declined to comment on the charges.
"The symbolism is secondary," said College Park resident Hellmut Lotz, of Bland asking council members to uphold the law while she swore them in. "What really matters is taking steps to protect the civil servants in the courts."