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Baltimore County wants to reform its inspector general office. Here’s how other state and local watchdogs stack up.

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 7/9/2021 Taylor DeVille, Baltimore Sun
a man and a woman standing in front of a building: Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan speaks about the joint report on water under the shared jurisdiction of the city and county as Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, left, and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., right, look on.  Dec. 21, 2020. p4 © Amy Davis Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan speaks about the joint report on water under the shared jurisdiction of the city and county as Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, left, and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., right, look on. Dec. 21, 2020. p4

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and some County Council members want to create an oversight panel to monitor the county’s corruption watchdog and set limits on the way the office may conduct investigations.

But facing resounding criticism, Olszewski decided Tuesday to hold off on filing a bill to rein in the county’s inspector general.

The Association of Inspectors General — a national consortium that sets standards for how those offices should function — said the changes would “effectively gag and shackle” the county’s current (and first) inspector general, Kelly Madigan.

The county’s statute authorizing its inspector general contains few constraints on the office and some officials have acknowledged it was hastily advanced. The office, for instance, is granted “the right to obtain full and unrestricted access to all records” of county government agencies without the clearly defined limits that the association recommends.

Olszewski’s draft amendments would have imposed some of the most restrictive rules on a watchdog office in the state, according to a review of Maryland’s inspectors general by The Baltimore Sun.

The bill is now being held while Olszewski convenes a work group to review it.

Here’s what you should know.

What does an inspector general do?

Inspectors general are independent offices that audit and investigate misconduct, fraud, waste and abuse of government power within a certain agency or jurisdiction. They’re more common at the federal level, where U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, recently co-sponsored a bill called the IG Independence and Empowerment Act that would establish more protections against political retaliation.

Maryland has no statewide inspector general office, but a handful of state agencies have one, namely the departments of education, health, human resources, and public safety and correctional services.

Few localities have established an inspector general — only Montgomery County, Baltimore City and (most recently) Baltimore County have authorized them. Madigan, a former deputy state prosecutor, was appointed as Baltimore County’s IG in January 2020.

There’s a Prince George’s County inspector general who oversees only the county police department. Other jurisdictions rely on ethics commissions to investigate alleged violations of public ethics laws.

State and local governments set their parameters for how watchdog offices should be run and overseen, often guided by the Association of Inspectors General. Inspectors general are subject to Maryland’s Public Information Act.

So what’s with the backlash against Baltimore County’s IG?

Olszewski said July 2 that he planned to file a proposal to curb the powers of the office.

The Democrat had said in May that he would try to install an oversight panel, after Madigan was lambasted by some County Council members. They criticized the way she handles investigations, her demeanor and the cost of her business cards.

The upbraiding was stoked in part by Madigan’s investigation into waste and inappropriate spending at the Baltimore County Agriculture Center that ensnared its former director, Chris McCollum. He’s served as treasurer for campaign accounts of Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins and former Democratic County Executive Jim Smith.

McCollum resigned this month as deputy director of the Department of Economic Development.

Why was there so much opposition to Olszewski’s bill?

The proposal went against decades-old standards adopted by the inspectors general association, according to a letter the association sent to Olszewski. Those standards principally maintain an inspector general’s office must function independently.

According to the association:

  • Determining funding for inspectors general shouldn’t impair the office’s independence.
  • The office should be able to conduct joint investigations with other oversight or law enforcement agencies.
  • Inspectors general should be able to refer investigations for civil, criminal, and administrative action.
  • Local law should grant the inspector general authority to establish a mission that encompasses prevention and detection of fraud, waste and abuse; efficient use of public resources, and promotion of public integrity.
  • The inspector general should establish their own policies and procedures.
  • Specific powers should be granted to the IG with the limits clearly defined — for instance, subpoena enforcement provisions and access to records.

What changes are being considered?

When work group members hash out a new proposal (there’s no clear timeline for when they must do so), they’ll be looking at the changes Olszewski sought in his legislation:

  • New limitations on the types of records an inspector general can request. Currently, Madigan is meant to have at-will access to all government records. Under this change, confidential and protected records would be shielded from an inspector general’s purview. A county spokesman suggested retirement records or documents protected through attorney-client privilege would be among withheld documents, but it’s unclear what other information could be held back under the change.
  • Revoking judicially enforceable subpoena power. The inspector general could no longer legally compel subjects to cooperate or hand over materials. The draft proposal would have allowed Madigan to issue subpoenas only if she didn’t obtain the requested documents within 90 days.
  • A seven-member oversight board appointed by top county officials. The county attorney, county administrative officer, budget director, council chair and council secretary would appoint representatives to the panel. Two residents could be appointed by the county executive and council chair. The board would control the office’s budget, appoint inspectors general and could remove them with cause with a majority vote. Currently, five of seven council members would have to approve ousting the watchdog. The inspector general would be required to notify the board of the subject of each complaint and before beginning an investigation. County officials have said the board would not be able to prevent an investigation.
  • A block on working jointly with other inspectors general. The draft bill removed a provision that authorized the inspector general to conduct joint investigations, such as the one Madigan and Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming completed in December that found the city and county lost millions in water and sewer revenue due to faulty meter readings.

How do Maryland’s other inspectors general stack up?

Olszewski’s draft bill sought to get rid of two mainstays of Maryland’s watchdog offices: the ability to issue court-enforced subpoenas and access to protected government records.

Here’s how inspector general offices are run elsewhere in the state:

Montgomery County Office of the Inspector General — The IG is appointed to a 4-year term by County Council from a list submitted by a nominating panel. The IG isn’t explicitly denied or granted access to protected or confidential records, though a 2011 court ruling limited access to personnel records. The IG can issue judicially enforceable subpoenas and, under certain circumstances, work with outside legal counsel without approval. The inspector general can be removed with the approval of six of nine council members “for neglect of duty, malfeasance, conviction of a felony, or other good cause.”

Baltimore City Office of the Inspector General — The IG investigates allegations of fraud, waste or abuse within city government against any employee, elected official or board member; any third-party contractor, and any recipient of city funds or services. The IG is appointed by a seven-member panel for a six-year term. The panel is chosen by the mayor, city solicitor, comptroller and City Council president. The panel approves the office’s budget proposal and four of seven members can vote to remove the IG for misconduct or persistently failing to perform adequately. The IG may issue judicially enforced subpoenas and is not restricted from coordinating investigations with outside agencies.

Office of the Inspector General for Education — This state-level investigator looks into complaints of fraud, waste and abuse of public funds and property; civil rights violations, and noncompliance with state and federal laws. The IG focuses on the education department, school systems and school boards. Appointments to the five-year term are made unanimously by the governor, attorney general and state treasurer with the state Senate’s consent, and removal for misconduct or performance must be unanimous. The IG cannot access documents that are protected under attorney-client privilege. Their subpoenas for documents and testimony are enforceable by a circuit court.

Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Health — Investigates fraud, waste and abuse of department funds and Medicaid. The IG is unanimously appointed by the governor, attorney general, and treasurer with consent of the Senate. The IG may levy civil penalties, subpoena evidence and testimony and coordinate with other state and federal agencies.

Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Human Resources — Audits each of Maryland’s local departments of social services at least once every three years and presents findings to local governing bodies. The IG is appointed by the agency secretary. The IG may not issue subpoenas, but can access state, local or contractor records relevant to investigations.

Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services — The post is an independent unit under the secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services that is tasked with auditing department finances and grants, performance and management. The IG reports findings to the department’s secretary.

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