The guilty plea by former Prince George's County executive Jack Johnson revives an all-too-familiar story in Maryland: the corrupt county executive shaking developers down for kickbacks. In a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Mr. Johnson on Tuesday admitted to receiving more than $400,000 in bribes, as well as to extortion and witness and evidence tampering.

This is indeed, as current County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said, a sad day for Prince George's County, which has struggled to shed a reputation for corruption and a "pay-to-play" culture that compels companies wanting to do business with the county to pay off local officials. Mr. Baker says the odor of dishonesty and sleaze have done more than anything else to impede economic development in his jurisdiction. And the county isn't out of the woods yet.


Mr. Johnson's appearance in court this week capped a political drama that began last November when he and his wife, Leslie, now a member of the county council, were arrested at their Mitchellville home after FBI agents overheard them plotting to flush a $100,000 check from a developer down the toilet and hide $79,600 in cash inside Ms. Johnson's underwear. The couple was charged with evidence tampering, and prosecutors later brought additional charges of bribery and corruption against Mr. Johnson. He could face up to 13 years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 15.

We haven't seen a scandal quite like this since the days of Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson (the case of Sheila Dixon, while in some ways similar, had a character all its own), and it raises the question of whether we have sufficient protections in place to ensure corruption like this doesn't happen again. At the time of the Johnsons' arrest, federal officials insisted their alleged crimes were just "the tip of the iceberg" of a much wider pattern of official misconduct.

Since then, the county's housing director and two developers have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with the Johnson probe, and federal agents say their investigation is continuing. (Leslie Johnson had been scheduled to plead guilty earlier this month, but her plea hearing was abruptly cancelled; she may face trial in coming months.)

Maryland gives its county executives tremendous local authority, and with it, evidently, comes the temptation — and the opportunity — for malfeasance. Rumors of officials demanding kickbacks from developers as the price for approving zoning, planning and contract agreements have been circulating for years in Prince George's County. It's not just a question of how long the culture of corruption has been festering but why nobody did anything about it. Where were the county's ethics board and council members?

Mr. Johnson was finally brought down by federal investigators, in particular U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein's office, which has been highly effective in a wide variety of cases and which has developed excellent working relationships with local prosecutors and police departments across the state. Though he was appointed by President George W. Bush, President Obama has wisely retained him.

Meanwhile Mr. Baker, who took office this year pledging to clean up the county's tarnished image, has introduced a number of reforms aimed at restoring public trust in government, including measures to limit county council members' ability to collect contributions from developers and to prevent them from holding up projects in their districts without good cause.

That's a good start, but Mr. Baker needs to go further by heeding calls to create an independent inspector general's office as a watchdog on county government. A task force he created earlier this year headed by former Baltimore City Mayor Kurt l. Schmoke recommended such a course after concluding that the county's local ethics boards, which are supposed to handle corruption charges, were riddled with conflicts of interest and lacked adequate staff. If Mr. Baker truly wants to send a signal that his administration won't tolerate corruption, he will take that advice.

The success Baltimore's recently reinvigorated inspector general's office has had in rooting out official malfeasance could serve as a model for jurisdictions across the state.

Prince George's County won't overcome its tainted past overnight, but establishing a strong, independent inspector general's office with adequate professional staff and statutory power to initiate investigations would go a long way toward showing that officials there are finally beginning to deal with the problem in a serious way.

But other governments in the state need to do more than feel relief that they have not been dragged through the mud the way Prince George's has. Ethics panels operate in the background, usually on a complaint-driven basis, and the state prosecutor's office, though successful in the Dixon prosecution, doesn't have the resources it needs to handle multiple cases. It's hard in a time of budget cuts to invest more in ethics, but doing so will pay dividends in efficient operations — and public trust.