Josh Kurtz: Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

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As they prepare for his sentencing in December, attorneys for Jack Johnson are no doubt digesting all the evidence the federal government has produced – the tapes and transcripts, the documents that were used to build the corruption case against the disgraced former Prince George’s County executive.

But are they prepared for the fury of the Chitlin Queen?

Shauna Anderson is an entrepreneur who spent years fruitlessly battling the Johnson administration in an attempt to expand her mail order chitlin business – and ultimately open a restaurant – in Hyattsville. Now Anderson wants to tell her story at Johnson’s sentencing hearing – and she’s looking for other aggrieved Prince George’s merchants to join her to outline their experiences with an administration she describes as even more corrupt than the headlines have let on.

“It was my intention to hire hundreds of people and serve thousands of people,” Anderson said in a recent interview. “Instead I ended up fleeing for my life – which is not what a government is supposed to do.”

It isn’t clear whether Anderson will actually get her day in court. Under federal sentencing guidelines, crime victims are allowed to testify at a perpetrator’s sentencing. Anderson – who says she and other Prince George’s business owners were victimized by the Johnson administration – has not directly been in touch with prosecutors yet, though she says they are aware of her and “know I am coming.”

Marcy Murphy, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, said it’s “unlikely” that Anderson would be afforded an opportunity to speak. The federal government prosecuted Johnson, she said, because he distributed federal housing funds to people who paid him bribes, “so the victim was the government in this case.”

But whether or not she winds up before a federal judge and face to face with Jack Johnson, Anderson certainly has a story to tell about her dispiriting experiences in the web of the Prince George’s County bureaucracy.

Anderson, a former tax analyst with the IRS who struck out on her own two decades ago, is a well-known chitlin purveyor in the Washington, D.C., area. In 2003, her recipes and writings on the history of chitlins became part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution about African-American celebrations and foods. She has written an e-book memoir called “Offal Great,” and has helped federal and state health officials establish sanitary and safety standards for cleaning chitterlings – the pig intestines that became a staple of the African-American diet during slavery.

“I was the African-American business in the county that was bringing in national attention,” she said.

But when Anderson, who was running a mail order chitlin business, wanted to get a license to allow people to pick up their orders in person at her Hyattsville location, she received an array of confusing and contradictory advice from Prince George’s planning officials. Eventually, she says, she was advised to open a restaurant there, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over a couple of years converting a house into a restaurant that met all county codes.

Finally, Anderson says she was told that her plans would not be approved because Johnson, who in the 1990’s appeared on the cover of The New York Times magazine for an article about the new black wealth in Prince George’s County, did not like the image of chitlins being the primary fare at a restaurant in Hyattsville. While it’s true that some African-Americans associate chitlins with a past they’d just as soon forget, because it was often the only part of the animal that slave owners allowed their slaves eat, many appreciate the history and meaning attached to the chewy delicacy – and many people, of course, really like it.

Anderson was incredulous.

“All these guys, they could only see the word ‘chitlin,’” she recalled. Then she said, without finishing the sentence, “They’ll let you sell drugs in Prince George’s County…”

Anderson was never directly solicited for a bribe. But she said she was threatened on occasion. And she came away with the impression that several Johnson administration officials – who she promises to name at the former county executive’s sentencing hearing, but won’t until then – were interested in government service only as a way of becoming entrepreneurs themselves and eventually striking it rich.

When Anderson learned that Johnson was being probed by federal officials and later was charged with taking bribes from people who were doing business with the county, she was hardly surprised – “I knew something was going on” – and it seemed to explain why officials were favoring some projects over others.

“It’s like a group of individuals that get together and decide what they want and what they don’t want for the county,” she said. “And they’re getting paid by the government.”

Four years after abandoning her plans in Hyattsville, Anderson is rebuilding her business. She still takes orders by mail and has a handful of distribution centers around the country. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and former Mayor Marion Barry are fans, and she’s scouting locations in Anacostia for a restaurant and retail outlet. She tries to teach her workers about business and how to navigate the financial system.

But Anderson’s nerves – and her credit rating – are shot. She says she’s in therapy and feels a little “like a prisoner of war.” She’s trying to make a documentary film about the impact corrupt politicians can have on small businesses. If she gets to testify in court, it will be a cathartic experience – and, she hopes, valuable for other Prince George’s County businesspeople and would-be entrepreneurs.

“We just can’t let this happen again,” she said.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation

A Triple Play of Political Shame – An Indictment of the Ehrlich Campaign, Maryland’s Fumble on Gay Marriage, and the Prince George’s Ethical Saga

White Prince George's

A DREAM Denied?

Frack This!

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.