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Isabel Mercedes Cumming, Baltimore’s first Latina inspector general, emerges as a force against waste and fraud

In the last few years, Baltimore's first woman and first Latina Inspector General - Isabel Mercedes Cumming - has made her mark as the city's watchdog. She has more than doubled the diversity of her office staff, and she points to savings of $4.5 million her team has found for city taxpayers. Her investigations have scrutinized everything from development and construction irregularities to wrongfully accused employees. She's now set to expand her work, overseeing Baltimore's ethics board and whistleblower program.

In her office on the sixth floor of City Hall, reminders of Isabel Mercedes Cumming’s heritage are everywhere. There are seashells and a flag from Puerto Rico, where she spent every summer of her young life. There is a framed photo of her mother, who spoke Spanish to Cumming at home and raised her daughter with one big lesson: Do something to change someone’s life for the better.

That upbringing shaped Cumming’s work as Baltimore’s first female and first Latina inspector general. Since she took the post in January 2018, she has been the city’s watchdog, charged with ensuring an honest, ethical government and rooting out corruption. The mandate grew with a change to the city charter in November 2018, with voters giving her more authority and independence from the mayor, along with a six-year term.

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Observers say Cumming has made the most of her clout with multiple significant investigations, while serving as a mentor and inspiration to other Latina women in government.

“To be honest, I don’t even remember previous IGs, and I’ve been working in City Council off and on for 32 years,” said Democratic City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. “She’s made herself felt, and that’s a great preventive medicine for all of us in city government.”

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Believing the office can’t be effective if it doesn’t represent the city’s demographics, Cumming has more than doubled the diversity of the staff. It includes seven women, with 12 of the 17 staffers people of color.

She reports that her team has found over $4.5 million in savings for taxpayers and financial waste during her time in office.

“She’s developing a reputation for being really good and really effective at her job, such that if you’re not dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s, you’re starting to be worried a little bit about the IG, and I think that’s a good thing.”


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And her office’s investigations of waste, fraud and abuse have scrutinized everything from development and construction irregularities to the unjust firing of employees.

Cases include that of a former chief investment officer of the Baltimore Employees’ Retirement System who worked from Baltimore only a few days a month. The inspector general’s office also reported in July that it prevented the city from paying more than $600,000 to an ambulance company that sought to hike its rates. Another investigation led to the firing of two public works employees who took trips to Las Vegas and Ocean City when they were supposed to be working or on sick leave.

“She’s developing a reputation for being really good and really effective at her job, such that if you’re not dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s, you’re starting to be worried a little bit about the IG, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Democratic City Councilman Bill Henry.

Cumming was hired by then-City Solicitor Andre Davis during the administration of former Mayor Catherine Pugh.

A former Maryland assistant state prosecutor who handled high-profile corruption cases, Cumming has a mixed background. Her father is Canadian, and her mother was Puerto Rican. Cumming says her fierceness for public service work comes from her Latina upbringing. Her mother was a Spanish professor at Loyola University Maryland, taught Spanish for free at Cromwell Valley Elementary and raised more than $10,000 in relief money for survivors of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in 2017.

“My mom always said that it was important to give back to the community that shaped who you became,” said Cumming, 58, who has mentored more than two dozen high school, college and law students.

Baltimore City's inspector general, Isabel Mercedes Cumming, is the first woman and first Latina in the role of the city's watchdog. She's won praise for aggressively pursuing corruption cases and diversifying her office staff.
Baltimore City's inspector general, Isabel Mercedes Cumming, is the first woman and first Latina in the role of the city's watchdog. She's won praise for aggressively pursuing corruption cases and diversifying her office staff. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

In her City Hall office, she has a toy truck from Barceloneta, where her family owned a cow farm and sugar cane once grew. Growing up in the 1960s, Cumming’s Puerto Rican holidays were spent playing stickball in the streets of San Juan, eating mangoes and chicharrón, and sipping coconut from a straw.

“It was a great place to grow up. I had the best of all worlds,” she said.

As one of the few Latinas in local government, Cumming is seen as an inspiration.

“Isabel always wants to give back and be able to share her trajectory as a woman, as a Latina, and often engages in public speaking events to ensure that people in newer generations can see themselves in her,” said Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

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Odette Ramos, who won the Democratic primary in District 14 and is poised to become the first Latina City Council member, said Cumming is one of the only Latina inspector generals in the U.S. “She’s very humble,” Ramos said. “This is a really big deal that we have a Latina doing this important work.”

Last fiscal year, Cumming issued 47 reports detailing the results of her investigations, up significantly from the eight reports published in the two years before she took office.

“If you don’t tell people about it and make certain that it becomes part of the public consciousness, then there’s no reason to expect that there’s going to be the kind of behavioral change, which is really what people want,” Henry said.

Next month, Cumming’s role expands as she takes leadership of the city’s Board of Ethics. With three new hires, the inspector general’s office will bring more staff and investigative expertise to examining potential violations of city ethics laws.

Cumming’s office, with its $1.8 million budget, will also head a new whistleblower protection program in partnership with the city’s unions, human resources office, and the departments of law and labor. Though development of the program has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Cumming said the new hires will expand protections for whistleblowers and look at how cases are investigated.

Cumming is planning to make the inspector general’s annual report available in Spanish later this month.

She can attest to the power of language to build bridges. When she prosecuted white-collar criminals, many of the people who were taken advantage of in her cases were Hispanic.

“It has been a true blessing to be able to speak Spanish to victims, and I did my mother’s eulogy in Spanish when we brought her back to Puerto Rico,” said Cumming, whose family has a burial plot next to El Morro, a fortified 16th-century castle in San Juan. “I wish my verbs were better, but my understanding is strong.”

Cumming, who is paid $151,598 a year, says her most meaningful case was clearing a pair of city employees wrongfully accused of misusing funds. The workers from the mayor’s office and the Department of Recreation and Parks were investigated for exceeding approved spending for a business trip. The inspector general’s office staff reviewed invoices and credit card statements and found the trip instead saved the city more than $3,000.

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“There are, trust me, a lot of very good employees here in Baltimore City, and it’s just rooting out the ones that bring everybody down,” said Cumming, who makes a point to speak with every new city employee and give them her office’s hotline number.

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While mostly lauded for her work, a few who have been involved in the office’s investigations have criticized Cumming for not giving ample time to respond to the investigative reports. They also wanted more communication about when reports would be made public.

Cumming points out that her reports are addressed to the mayor, that she gives an extension only once, and that she always publishes responses to her investigations. She also noted that by the time a case synopsis is posted online, the subjects of the report have been notified and interviewed at least two months earlier.

Others around the country have taken note of Cumming’s work. The office has been recognized as a national model by the Municipal Integrity Practice of Bloomberg Associates, a pro bono municipal consulting firm. The city of Atlanta used Baltimore’s office as a guide when opening its new office.

Cumming, who has four years left in her term and plans to stay for all of them, is deeply attached to Baltimore. She finds herself thinking about and capturing the resilience of the city in photographs she tweets.

“I have to write reports that I’m pointing out negative things, but we’re making it better,” she said. “There’s so much potential in Baltimore, and there are just so many people who truly believe in Baltimore.”

The inspector general’s hotline number is 800-417-0430.

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.

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