Friday, January 11, 2013

Leadership, Corruption, and the "I Deserve It" syndrome

Maryland State House - from www.plan.maryland.gov
In Prince George's County, Maryland, County Executive Jack Johnson and his director of Housing and Community Development were convicted of taking bribes from developers hoping to build in the county.  His wife, a future County Councilperson, became infamous - not only for conspiring to destroy evidence of the bribery conspiracy and hiding money in her undergarments when the FBI was closing in, but also her later refusal to step down from office and after pleading guilty, and she continued to serve as councilperson until forced out. Uly Currie, Maryland State Senator from Prince George's and former chairman of the most powerful committee in the Senate, was acquitted of corruption in a case where his defense was largely ignorance of the disclosure rules. Maryland Delegate Tiffany Alston was recently stripped of her position because she took money from her campaign account to pay for her wedding amongst other financial indiscretions. These cases are from a single county over a two-year period, but corruption certainly isn't limited to this county.  DC Councilperson Harry Thomas Jr. recently misappropriated government funds dedicated for youth recreation and bought an Audi SUV with some of the proceeds. It's also not limited to this region - remember that two former Illinois governors are currently in federal prison for corruption.  That being said, let's take a look at this case study.



As British historian Lord Acton once said, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" and to paraphrase the famous bank robber Willie Sutton, people rob banks because that's where the money is. The people that are drawn to power are, on one hand, very likely to be motivated by a desire to help people and communities. On the other hand, they may also be more likely to be corrupted by power, the access to money, and the feeling of invulnerability that comes from safe re-election odds. Frankly, some people are simply crooks at heart, mask that behind a great smile and stellar constituent services, and rob us blindly until they get caught. It is for this reason that we should be thankful for anyone who wants to make the personal sacrifices necessary to run for public office, but we should also keep an eye on them, in the same way that we need to protect elders and children from predators - both well-meaning and dangerous people are attracted to areas of need.

Why have I brought this up in my policy blog? This corruption has both personal and policy impacts.  As I have mentioned before, I am a president of a condominium association in Prince George's County. Tiffany Alston was the shining example from an initiative by a local leader that guaranteed college educations to a group of 5th graders in the hopes they would do well. She had recently been featured in profiles as the shining example of that class – a Maryland delegate that came from an inner-beltway Prince George's neighborhood. In 1992, Jack Johnson and Leslie Johnson were featured on the cover of New York Times magazine as a shining success of the "New Black Suburbs." When writing my dissertation, I considered that article to be a key example of the national prominence of Prince George's as a majority black middle-class county. Tiffany Alston was one of my state delegates prior to her removal from office, Jack Johnson was my county executive prior to his retirement and subsequent conviction, his wife Leslie Johnson was my county councilperson prior to her conviction.

Then a week ago, I came across a blog in the Washington Post that disturbed me. As a housing policy person, I have been looking at the policy implications from the National Mortgage Settlement for the past year. According to my friends at Enterprise, after six months, less than half of that settlement money was spent on housing -  money that should be spent to solve foreclosure issues has been directed by state legislatures for general funds and other purposes.  In Maryland's share, $10 million was allocated for housing issues in Prince George's, but the Washington Post blog described special conditions that Maryland's Attorney General has put on Prince George's County (and Baltimore City) that make the money more difficult to access and could delay projects - all in order to make sure that the money is properly spent. The author was convinced that the recent history of corruption in the county was at least partly responsible for the conditions. I had a subsequent conversation with an Annapolis insider who confirmed that was the case, and that some County representatives are fighting to get those conditions changed.

I have to admit that as a resident of this county, my faith in many elected officials has been shaken by the poor leadership that has been shown in the past, but I do believe that most of the criminals have been pushed out (and I hope that all of them have).  The concern is this: policies are being put in place that limit the ability of housing officials to use those funds to serve people and neighborhoods that have been affected by the foreclosure crisis, and what was a moral and political issue now becomes a policy issue. This is certainly a disappointing development and I hope that there some other issue some other reason why this policy makes sense.

Personally I am disappointed in some of the past leadership in Maryland. I also recognize that there are plenty of other corruption issues elsewhere, but I've had too many neighborhood and barbershop discussions where someone defends local officials who are widely known to be corrupt. I've heard arguments that the corrupt officials have helped out neighbors in need or gave a job to someone close to them. I disagree with that kind of loyalty, but I can understand why that personal touch may sway someone. But I cannot understand the argument that officials who are getting kickbacks or doing other inappropriate things with funds "aren't really hurting anybody," they are instead "doing what everyone else does" and they "shouldn't be blamed for doing what the old boys network has done for years." These are near direct quotes from several discussions with residents and voters.

Two things are noteworthy here: first is the possibility that policy is holding funds hostage that will negatively impact residents in one of the areas most struggling with foreclosures. Second is the bigger issue - the sort of corruption that people ignore with a nod and wink can actually have negative policy implications. Perhaps I should find some solace in the fact that that the next time I go into the barbershop, I will have more evidence that this corruption is directly harming residents, including the ones that I represent. I hope that is more convincing to some of the holdouts. More importantly, I hope that someone out there will be inspired to provide real leadership – the kind of leadership that doesn't illegally line their pockets or come back to bite their constituents in the end.

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