For more than two hours yesterday, members of the Inspector General Advisory Board hammered away at Baltimore’s corruption watchdog over investigatory procedure, dancing around their core concern, which basically boiled down to this:
Could Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming accept complaints that could wind up as active investigations of them or their political allies?
It wasn’t billed that way.
In his opening remarks, the panel chair, City Solicitor James L. Shea, characterized the virtual gathering as a way for members “to listen and learn” about the workings of an agency charged with identifying waste, fraud and financial abuse in local government, prior to the panel’s completion of a performance review of Cumming.
Left unsaid was the reason why at least some members of the panel had gathered on a hot day in late August – to suggest that Cumming and her team of investigators are too eager to look at complaints from employees and citizens and should steer away from “issues” (in Shea’s lawyerly wording) that could tread on sensitive toes.
“I take it from time to time you decline to pursue complaints that you received. Is that right?” Shea asked.
“If it’s not within our jurisdiction, of course, we’d decline that,” Cumming answered, adding that her office is currently pursuing 30 active investigations and has at least 20 pending cases.
“There are times when you feel as though the complaint is not well founded or not within your jurisdiction or requires a referral or a variety of reasons that you might not pursue an in-depth investigation,” Shea pressed on.
“My question to you is: Do you keep a record of even those preliminary decisions – all of them?”
“Yep,” said Cumming.
The panel was created by a 2018 charter amendment that separated the IG from the mayor’s office and placed oversight in the hands of an advisory board.
Mayors Catherine Pugh, Jack Young and Brandon Scott had shown no interest in activating the board between late 2018 and early 2021.
Then came a political firestorm when the local NAACP president and others accused Cumming of unfairly targeting State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for “personally, politically and even racially motivated” reasons.
Mosby demanded retractions to an IG report that she had requested in an effort to debunk The Brew’s reporting about her out-of-town trips and formation of a private company.
The fact that her husband, Nick Mosby, had become president of the City Council a few months earlier strengthened her position.
As permitted under the charter amendment, Nick Mosby appointed two Council allies, Eric Costello and Sharon Green Middleton, to the panel. Frosty and critical questioning by Costello and Middleton at a June budget hearing offered a preview of the reception that Cumming and her staff were to receive yesterday.
Only in Baltimore
While Shea said nothing about the board’s composition yesterday, Cumming pointed to the panel’s makeup. “This board is inherently a political board. The OIG is, and is expected to be, one that avoids any political influence.”
“In a review of 25 independent state and local inspector general offices around the country, only seven had advisory boards,” she continued.
“But only Baltimore City has an advisory board made up exclusively of elected and appointed government employees. Asking the law school deans to join can only happen when two elected officials – the mayor and the City Council president – agree to the arrangement.”
Noting that the OIG has investigated cases with individuals or departments whose positions are represented on the current advisory board, Cumming concluded, “There is an inherent flaw in Baltimore’s model.”
Echoes of County IG Fight
Board members disregarding or downplaying her concerns was just one oddity of the meeting.
Equally striking was that during 125 minutes of questioning not a single word was uttered by panel members about the office’s achievements, including the $7,051,000 in waste or savings the agency identified in fiscal 2021.
Based on yesterday’s meeting, rooting out waste and corruption in Baltimore government does not appear to be a priority of the IG Advisory Board.
Rooting out corruption does not appear to be a priority of the advisory board, based on yesterday’s meeting.
Instead, Cumming and her aides, Michelle Phillips and Yvonne Brooks, were grilled about processes and procedures, echoing the hostility some members of the Baltimore County Council displayed toward IG Kelly Madigan after she exposed financial irregularities by former Ag Center Director Chris McCollum.
Last month, County Executive Johnny Olszewski attempted to establish an advisory board that would strip away Madigan’s investigatory independence.
In response to Shea yesterday, Cumming said her office follows a 92-page manual based on best practices from the “Green Book” created by the AIG, a non-partisan group of 2,000 inspector generals worldwide.
Shea then wondered if the manual, which is kept confidential to protect the integrity of IG investigations, could be shared with the advisory board.
Cumming did not respond.
“Do equity issues factor in?”
“Do you give the agency that is the focus of a report an opportunity to comment on that draft report prior to publishing, so they can verify the information?” asked Councilman Costello.
“No, we do not,” Phillips answered. (UPDATE: The OIG, however, does submit its full investigative report to the agency in question, plus the mayor and his staff, prior to publication of the public synopsis of the report. That synopsis will include the city’s response.)
“Do equity considerations factor in the decision to move to an investigation?” wondered Michael Huber, Scott’s chief of staff and a panel member.
“What do you mean by equity?” Cumming asked.
“Do any considerations of racial equity come into the decisions your office is making?” Huber replied.
“No,” Cumming said firmly.
What about flying saucers?
One of the odder exchanges took place when panelist Donald B. Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, circled back to Shea’s concern about unfounded complaints.
“What happens when you receive a claim that’s either intended to be vindictive or is from a person who may be a little mentally – doesn’t have the cognitive reality of the world?” Tobin asked.
“Many of us have gotten those letters that are concerned about someone controlling their mind or something like that,” Tobin continued.
“I’ll let Michelle answer that,” Cumming said, “because she runs the complaint hotline.”
“We have received complaints of that nature,” Phillips said. “Somebody may say the mayor put a spaceship on top of my house. They’re spying on me. You got to take a look at that. Clearly, it’s not true. We have trained hotline special agents to communicate with these individuals. We understand their concerns, but this is all out of purview. We do suggest outside agencies, like the department of health.”
“I appreciate that,” Tobin said. “That sounds completely rational and that clarifies how I was thinking,”
Mayor Scott “really supports” an independent inspector general, says his top aide.
If the Mosbys were never mentioned by name, Scott’s attitude toward the OIG was volunteered by his top aide.
“The mayor really supports having a strong and independent inspector general,” said Huber. “As with all city government operations, the more we know, the better.”
After trying to draw out inconsistencies in Cumming’s remarks about her opposition to the current makeup of the board, Huber had this to say:
“Thank you for walking us through what I’m sure were some painful questions. The chairman said some really elementary things.”
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