Dog Bites Man

The Washington Post reports that Jack B. Johnson, county executive of Prince George’s County in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, is very generous to his friends. Since he took office,

…15 of his friends and political supporters have been awarded 51 county contracts totaling nearly $3.3 million, according to records and interviews.

In several cases, Johnson awarded county contracts to supporters after he failed to persuade the County Council or others to place them in county jobs. He has also created at least a dozen high-profile positions and filled them with supporters, including fraternity brothers. Some of those who received contracts or jobs had no expertise in the field, and others did not produce written reports required by the county.

In one case, Johnson hired a friend’s company, which produces a local cable show, to write a report on school construction financing and then gave him two more contracts to evaluate economic trends. He gave a similar contract to his campaign chairman.

Perhaps the surprise is that this is considered front-page news. What politicians don’t hand out tax-funded benefits to their friends? Certainly the various scandals swirling around the Republican Congress – involving Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and others – provide fresh reminders.

As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, one of the earliest and most charming descriptions of political reality came from Lord Bolingbroke, an English Tory leader in the early 18th century. He wrote to a friend:

I am afraid that we came to Court in the same dispositions as all parties have done; that the principal spring of our actions was to have the government of the state in our hands; that our principal views were the conservation of this power, great employments to ourselves, and great opportunities of rewarding those who had helped to raise us and of hurting those who stood in opposition to us.

Jack Johnson should tell the Post, “Yeah, what he said!” But Johnson doesn’t have to reach back to Lord Bolingbroke for a precedent. In the same part of Libertarianism: A Primer, I told the story of Johnson’s predecessor as Prince George’s County Executive:

A particularly striking illustration of what we might call Bolingbroke’s Law is the record of Maryland governor Parris Glendening. Elected in 1994, Glendening seemed a clean, honest, moderate, technocratic former professor. He might give Maryland big government, but at least it would be clean government. So what did he do when he took office? Well, here’s how the Washington Post described his first budget:

In his first major act as Maryland governor, Parris N. Glendening unveiled a no-new-taxes budget that unabashedly steers the biggest share of spending to the three areas that voted most strongly for him: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore.

Lord Bolingbroke, call your office. A few days later, it turned out that Glendening and his top aide were collecting tens of thousands of dollars in early pension payments from Prince George’s County, where Glendening served as County Executive until his election as governor, thanks to Glendening’s creative interpretations of rules that gave early pension benefits to government employees who suffered “involuntary separation” from their jobs. Glendening decided that officials not allowed to seek reelection because of term limits, such as the two-term limit on the County Executive, had been “involuntarily separated” from their jobs. And he “demanded” the resignations of his top aides a month before he left his county job–making them also victims of “involuntary separation”–whereupon he hired them as his top aides in the governor’s mansion.

Like the Energizer bunny, the Glendening money train just kept on going. In May the governor asked the legislature to spend $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to rescue a struggling high-tech firm in Prince George’s County headed by one of his political supporters. Then in August, Frank W. Stegman, the state secretary of labor, licensing, and regulation, hired the wife of Theodore J. Knapp, the state personnel secretary and a colleague of Stegman’s from the Prince George’s government, for a job in his agency. No ingrate, personnel secretary Knapp then returned the favor by recommending a $10,000 raise in Stegman’s meager $100,542 salary.

Politicians reward their friends. What else is new? The best way to limit the damage from this sort of corruption is to limit government to a few specific functions and leave most important services in the marketplace.