Bills would force officials from office after guilty pleas

Local,Maryland,Ben Giles

Prince George's County lawmakers want to ensure elected officials are removed swiftly once found guilty of a crime, a lesson learned after toiling to remove former County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson from office last summer.

Bills in the Maryland House and Senate would require elected officials at the state or county level to leave their post immediately after pleading guilty to felonies relating to their duties.

A loophole in the law currently allows officials to stay in office until their sentencing, which can happen months after a guilty plea or conviction.

Prince George's County officials watched helplessly after Johnson chose to remain on the County Council after pleading guilty in June 2011 to charges of conspiracy to commit federal witness and evidence tampering, including flushing a $100,000 check and stuffing $79,600 in cash in her bra and underwear at the instruction of her husband, then-County Executive Jack Johnson.

She eventually succumbed to pressure from the council and County Executive Rushern Baker and resigned in July, weeks after pleading guilty.

Maryland Sen. Victor Ramirez, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said residents in Johnson's council district were left without a leader while she remained a lame duck on the council. Johnson had been stripped of some council authority, including her committee votes, and was wasting residents' time by sticking around, he said.

"The main objective is to make sure that our constituents have representation," the Prince George's County Democrat said. "The longer you wait for someone to come in and take the position over, the more time that people don't have representation."

Johnson could have served another six months if she had remained in office until her sentencing. She was sentenced in December 2011 to one year and one day in prison.

If the legislation passes the General Assembly, Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold could be the first lawmaker in the state affected by it. Leopold was indicted last week on charges he misused his security detail, such as using police to escort him to sexual encounters with a county employee.

Leopold said he plans to fight the charges.

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