By Len Lazarick
House Speaker Michael Busch on Tuesday thanked the U.S. attorney and the FBI “for their due diligence in completing this investigation” into Prince George’s County corruption that may put as many as three former and current delegates in prison.
Actually the investigation is not completed at all.
But the person who should be really grateful to the feds for their probe and the awkward timing of their announcement is Gov. Larry Hogan.
These officials of the Department of Justice have helped undermine the public standing of some of Hogan’s chief opponents to his agenda and his reelection bid — Democrats in the House of Delegates and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.
The press releases from U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein and subsequent headlines are likely to reinforce the public impression that bribery and corruption are still rampant in Prince George’s County, where the last county executive went to prison. Now that corruption touches the State House as well.
It makes little difference that Will Campos took bribes for his actions on the Prince George’s County Council, not as a member of the House, where he served less than a year. He pleaded guilty Tuesday.
Then less than an hour before the new session of the Maryland General Assembly was about to convene Wednesday, Del. Michael Vaughn, another Prince George’s Democrat and a 14-year veteran of the House, resigned for “health” reasons.
Vaughn was presumed to be the unnamed member of the House Economic Matters Committee identified earlier by prosecutors as a target. When the FBI comes knocking, it does tends to make you sick to your stomach, accompanied by a very long headache.
Rosenstein said there was at least one other lawmaker involved.
“There are plenty of honest politicians in Annapolis,” Rosenstein said, according to Brian Witte of the Associated Press. “They’ve got nothing to worry about, right? It’s only folks who have been involved in corruption that should be concerned that we may come knocking on their doors.”
“Some of those folks will be charged. Others are still under investigation, and so all I can tell you is that this is an ongoing investigation,” Rosenstein said.
The mess of alcohol regulation
It also matters little that a liquor commissioner who has already plead guilty in the probe was appointed by Hogan. He simply names people sent to him by local legislators and party officials.
Rather than reflecting poorly on Hogan, it gave him a chance to blast the lack of oversight for liquor regulation in the state. He told The Washington Post that the system was “a mess” and “antiquated.”
The regulation of alcohol by the state and counties is indeed quite a mess, fostered by the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, leaving the control of alcohol to the states and their counties.
Scores of bills are introduced in the legislature each year making minor changes in local liquor laws — who can have wine tastings and when, who can sell booze on Sunday, what time they can open and close, who can sell alcohol both on premises and for carry-out, The crazy quilt of rules and regulations was one of the first topics MarylandReporter.com covered in its first months of operation seven years ago, “Liquor legislation is complicated, confusing and very local.”
Last year, legislators introduced 119 bills controlling the local sale of alcoholic beverages. In many cases, the bills benefit just one or two establishments. The potential for political corruption is clear.
(Wednesday, and on every opening day of the legislature for decades, the Licensed Beverage Association and the Alcoholic Beverage Industry hold one of the largest and most lavish receptions across from the State House — with plentiful free food and open bars.)
County Executive Baker has promised to root out corruption in his county. That the liquor board is a state agency enforcing state laws makes a big difference to him. But it matters little to outsiders.
The pall of corruption probably will do little to affect the already negative dynamic between Hogan and Busch, who do not get along. But it helps Hogan strengthen the case to voters that he’s the good guy trying to do the right thing, and the Democratic delegates are not. For that, he can thank President Obama’s Department of Justice.