A much-touted innovation of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. – the establishment of an inspector general’s office to root out waste, fraud and corruption in local government – came under attack yesterday by two senior members of the County Council.
Chairman Julian E. Jones Jr. and Middle River Councilwoman Cathy A. Bevins, both Democrats, blasted the 15-month-old office and its head, Kelly Madigan, during a budget hearing.
Bevins scolded Madigan over her work, saying it “is giving Baltimore County a black eye.”
Jones chided her as well, lamenting that county employees are “terrified” of being caught up in a dragnet of unsupported accusations.
Their remarks indicated that despite having one of the smallest budgets in county government (currently $290,100), the office faces an uncertain future when the Council votes on Olszewski’s $4.2 billion fiscal 2022 package later today.
UPDATE: The Council wound up not cutting any part of the 2022 budget, including the OIG office.
Bevins alluded to criticism by the NAACP of Baltimore City’s inspector general, Isabel Mercedes Cumming, after she issued a critical report about the travels and side businesses of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
Implying that both offices were too aggressive, Bevins floated the idea of an oversight board, apparently to be filled by county officials, to review Madigan’s work.
Madigan said her proposed budget was a fraction of the size of the OIG offices in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.
Baltimore has 15 staffers and a budget of $1.8 million, she said, while the county has two positions and is seeking a third “admin” position for a total of $353,994 in fiscal 2022.
Madigan said she was proud of what her office accomplished in its first year of operation.
In addition to completing seven major investigations, it transitioned the county from paper to electronic financial disclosure statements and certified 2,705 employees through an online ethics training course.
At the end of several exchanges with Bevins, Madigan responded evenly: “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
“You’re not their supervisor!”
Bevins zeroed in on the IG report documenting how the former director of the Ag Center used county credit cards to make unauthorized purchases, including for clothes, a refrigerator, snow blowers, knives and women’s boots.
Repeatedly, Bevins told Madigan that she did not understand how Baltimore County government works.
“When you work at the Ag Center, they’re called muck boots. That’s what you wear when you work at an ag center. Why would you cite the $500-something cost for women’s boots?” Bevins asked.
“If that person’s supervisor never had a problem with that purchase, you shouldn’t,” she added. “You’re not their supervisor!”
The McCollum Connection
Left unsaid by Bevins during the lengthy questioning was her personal connection with William “Chris” McCollum, the target of the Ag Center investigation
McCollum is Bevins’ campaign treasurer and often attends Council meetings and accompanies her at other official functions.
The 50-year-old county employee simultaneously serves as a $135,000-a-year “senior administrative advisor” at the Department of Economic and Workforce Development, an appointment made by Olszewski after he became county executive in 2018.
A protege of former county executive James T. Smith Jr., McCollum was the subject of an investigative report in The Brew regarding his financial management of Smith’s Baltimore County Victory Slate.
Over the last 15 years, the candidate slate has dispensed hundreds of thousands of dollars to county Democrats favored by Smith, with McCollum acting as treasurer.
Bevins and Jones are recipients of Victory Slate funds, along with Councilman Tom Quirk, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, now speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.
City Councilman Eric Costello also is a slate member – as was former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh before she pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy.
(Yesterday, Bevins told WYPR that McCollum is resigning as her campaign treasurer, though his status as Bevins’ remains unchanged in Elections Board records.)
For his part, Jones dismissed the Ag Center report as “fluff,” but expressed concern over the hiring of Steven Quisenberry, a retired FBI agent, as the office’s chief investigator.
“The reality is, Miss Madigan, we are all against fraud and waste. But what I hear from employees is that they are walking around in fear because they feel you’re going to take a molehill and make a mountain.”
“I have buyer’s remorse,” he continued, “because a retired FBI agent is making employees scared to come to work. I tell them, don’t worry.”
“Environment of conflict”
Pushing back against the hostile questioning, Republican Councilman Todd K. Crandell expressed dismay over the “environment of conflict” at the meeting, as Jones and Bevins denounced Madigan’s investigations as undermining employee privacy and morale.
“We’ve all heard throughout the years of things that have happened in county government that just don’t seem right,” Crandell said. “We’ve all heard rumors of this or that person looking the other way, the good old boy network. We’ve all heard it–
“I haven’t heard it, councilman,” injected Jones.
Trying to speak later, Crandell was cut off by Bevins.
“Councilman, I hear what you’re saying. But this office is supposed to be about transparency. If Miss Madigan has a problem with any of these questions – I don’t think she does, do you have a problem with any of these questions, Miss Madigan?”
“I think we are heading in a direction, with this particular agency, that is not being supported by the Council” – Councilman Todd Crandell.
“I’m trying to answer every member of the County Council’s questions to be best of my ability,” she replied.
Following some crosstalk, Crandell said, “I think we are heading in a direction, with this particular agency, that is not being supported by the Council.”
“I don’t know what page you’re on,” Bevins replied.
When his turn came, Councilman Izzy Patoka praised Madigan for her office’s smooth transition from paper to online financial disclosure statements.
“One of the most difficult things you can do in government is create a new agency. There’s always growing pains. I don’t think you have an easy job,” he said. “Hang in there, Miss Madigan, contentious as this hearing [may be].”
County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers said the issue with the women’s boots did not revolve around whether they were needed, but the way in which the former Ag Center’s director purchased them.
Bevins countered that employees should participate in the course of an investigation and their names should be “fully redacted before reporters get to them.”
The councilwoman became most animated over Madigan’s business cards, demanding that she produce them:
“Can you hold one up for me, please. And no need to roll your eyes,” Bevins said. “Can I see the back? Ah, what is that on the back? I can’t see it.”
Bevins then asked Madigan to read what was on the back.
When Madigan explained that it was a complaint number where a person could anonymously report waste, fraud or abuse to her office, Bevins pounced.
Noting that a box of 500 one-sided business cards costs $49, she asked:
“Why do you feel like you have to spend double of taxpayers’ money to buy double-sided cards that cost $108.67?” she asked. “I’m not comfortable with you spending an additional $59 on your business cards more than the county executive, the county council or anyone else who carries a business card in Baltimore County.
“To me that is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, and it’s your job is to root out waste.”
“Why do you feel like you have to spend double of taxpayers’ money to buy double-sided cards that cost $108.67?” – Councilwoman Cathy Bevins.
When Madigan replied that she disagreed with this assessment, Bevins exploded, “You said you disagreed?”
“This is Baltimore County,” the councilwoman declared, “and I think that you need to just get more comfortable with some of the policies and procedures that happen here in the county. And if you disagree, I have a problem with that.”
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