Josh Kurtz: Living in Infamy

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Mrs. Teasdale: It’s a gala day for you!
Rufus T. Firefly: A gal a day is all I can take.

-- from the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup”

It was a gala day in Maryland politics -- but not the kind of day anybody ought to be celebrating.

If Dec. 7, 1941, was a day that will live in infamy, what do you call Dec. 6, 2011?

That’s the day the Maryland political community was transfixed by not one, but two major scandals reaching their apex. Around the same time Jack Johnson was getting his just desserts for the wide-ranging Prince George‘s County corruption scandal, Paul Schurick heard the words “guilty” ring through a Baltimore court room, with the promise of prison time for his role in a voter suppression scheme.

Scandal is common enough in state politics -- all too common. But rare is the day when two major figures in the Maryland political galaxy go down in such dramatic fashion at the same time.

So where is the outrage? The Washington Post, in an editorial last week, said good riddance to Johnson. A Baltimore Sun editorial made clear the paper’s disapproval of Schurick’s actions.

But no one in any position of authority is saying we’ve got a problem here, let alone offering solutions.

Of course, Johnson’s 87-month sentence and Schurick’s conviction are just scenes in a long-running play one might be tempted to call “That Corrupt Season.”

Sandwiched between those seminal events were state Sen. Uly Currie’s corruption trial last month -- he was acquitted but still faces a probe by a legislative ethics committee that could lead to his ouster from the General Assembly -- the 366-day prison sentence imposed on Leslie Johnson, Jack Johnson’s wife, for her role in the Prince George’s scandal; the trial of state Del. Tiffany Alston, who is accused of using campaign funds for her wedding and other personal activities, scheduled to begin the same week the 2012 legislative session does; and the February trial of Schurick’s alleged co-conspirator, political operative Julius Henson.

And taking an even longer view, you can draw a straight -- ok, a crooked -- line, all the way from Spiro Agnew to Marvin Mandel, from the Mitchell brothers to Larry Young, from Gerry Curran to Gerry Evans, from Tommie Broadwater to Tommy Bromwell, until the line finds its way to Tiffany Alston and all who will come after her.

We’ve become so desensitized to political scandal in Maryland because it’s all around us, an everyday occurrence. Heck, it’s essentially part of the state’s tradition. Louisiana, Illinois and New Jersey got nuthin’ on us. Old-timers can name far more scandals and scoundrels than just those listed above.

In Annapolis, convicted felon Evans isn’t just allowed to maintain his lobbying practice -- he was the top earning lobbyist in town from Nov. 1, 2010 to April 30 (another convicted felon, Bruce Bereano, was #7 on the list for lobbyist earnings).

In Prince George’s County, the Johnsons not only continue to have allies on the County Council, they have allies and apologists throughout the county. Federal authorities are still investigating this scandal, and who knows where it might end up? But Leslie Johnson can insist, with a straight face, that she’s an honest person. And poor Rushern Baker, Jack Johnson’s successor as county executive, has seen the entire first year of his term practically obliterated, or at the very least heavily overshadowed, by a scandal of other people’s making.

In Baltimore, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, she of the gift card thefts and lavish gifts from developers, talks seriously of a political comeback. In Anne Arundel County, Councilman Darryl Jones can neglect to pay his taxes for years, faces jail time, and still hasn’t made a move to resign.

The criminal act is one thing. But the hubris, the shamelessness, the sense of entitlement these Maryland figures display, make their crimes so much worse.

How do you legislate against this kind of behavior? And again, where is the outrage? Where is Gov. Martin O’Malley? Or Senate President Mike Miller, now a quarter century into the job? Or House Speaker Mike Busch, entering his 10th year in that post? Why does no one squawk when Congressman Steny Hoyer publicly hails Uly Currie like a long lost brother just days after his acquittal and declares “the system works”?

“Duck Soup,” the film referenced at the beginning of this column, concerns a fictional nation, Fredonia. Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho Marx, is recruited by Mrs. Teasdale, its wealthiest resident and widow of its former leader, to run the country. The Marx Brothers being the Marx Brothers, hilarity -- and anti-authoritarian chaos -- ensues.

With each passing day here in Maryland, Fredonia is looking better and better.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Holiday Green and Anthony Brown

All I Want for Christmas Is Bob Ehrlich’s Book (Plus: A Meditation on Tom Perez)

Road to Nowhere

Hoyer on Currie: ‘The system works’

Why Glenn Ivey Will Win — And Why He Won’t

Around the Horn: Maryland Register, IRV, Uly Currie

Oh Donna (and Valerie)

Bartlett Pared
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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.