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Baltimore County Executive Olszewski establishes ethics commission to review inspector general’s office

Months after attempting to establish a panel overseeing Baltimore County’s inspector general, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has convened a new ethics commission tasked with issuing recommendations regarding government accountability.

The Blue Ribbon Ethics and Accountability Commission announced Tuesday was appointed by Olszewski to be a nonpartisan, independent group meant to review the county’s current laws and policies regarding government ethics and the Office of the Inspector General.

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The seven-member commission will be chaired by retired Judge Joseph Murphy, who previously served as a Chief Judge for the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

It also will include:

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  • Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland
  • Brigadier General Janeen L. Birckhead, assistant adjutant general of the Maryland Army National Guard
  • Judge Kathleen Cox, former Baltimore County Circuit Court administrative judge
  • William E. Johnson, Jr., former inspector general for the Maryland Department of Human Resources
  • Jon Laria, managing partner of the Ballard Spahr law firm
  • Cindy Leppert, chair of Baltimore County’s Ethics Commission
  • Thomas X. Glancy, attorney at Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz and President-elect of the Board of Directors for ACLU of Maryland’s Public Justice Center

The commission’s makeup reflects a “strong balance of perspectives and experiences that will ensure that Baltimore County is moving forward with national best practices,” Olszewski said.

Inspector General Kelly Madigan said in a statement that her office looks forward to the commission “bringing best practices to our office” and “was pleased to learn that someone with an exemplary reputation such as Judge Murphy was chosen to lead the commission.”

“All the members selected will bring with them a great deal of experience and integrity that will no doubt benefit the citizens of Baltimore County,” she said.

Antoine, who directs the nonpartisan good government nonprofit Common Cause Maryland, said one aspect of her role will be to “strengthen and empower” the county’s Office of the Inspector General after Olszewski sought to limit her authority this summer.

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That may include providing more funding to the office, which includes one administrator, Deputy Inspector General Steve Quisenberry and Madigan, who splits her time between inspector general duties and working as executive director of the county’s Office of Ethics and Accountability.

The office has a budget of $290,100. An annual report from the inspector general’s office noted its operational expenses cost approximately 35 cents per county resident, based on 2010 Census data.

Olszewski created the county’s first Office of the Inspector General in 2019 and hired former state prosecutor Madigan to fill the position and root out fraud, waste and abuse.

He then sought to limit Madigan’s investigative powers and install an oversight board in July after several Baltimore County Council members derided Madigan’s attitude during her investigations and the cost of her business cards during a budget hearing.

But the Dundalk Democrat postponed plans to introduce that legislation after the Association of Inspectors General said the bill would “effectively gag and shackle” the county’s inspector general.

“There were some valid concerns raised” by council members regarding Madigan’s office, Olszewski said.

Asked if he still believed the inspector general needed an oversight panel, Olszewski said “I am not going to constrain or suggest that [an oversight board] is the answer.”

“I want to bring together the experts and have them suggest to us what the structure and functions should look like,” he said.

If an oversight board is established, Antoine said, the commission should guide the formation of its board to ensure “it would not in any way impede” the inspector general’s “ability to do their work.”

It’s not yet clear what the scope of the commission’s work will be. The commission may assess how the county appoints members of other commissions, Antoine said. She pointed to the county’s redistricting commission, which included just one Black male and one white female on a five-member board.

Olszewski’s administration is still drafting an executive order, but it’s expected to stipulate that the commission meet at the request of the chair “as frequently as required to perform its duties.”

Before the commission can start meeting — public meetings will be online during the pandemic — the county will first issue a request for proposals for an outside vendor to provide it with administrative and technical support, which Olszewski said is intended help shield the commission from political influence.

After Olszewski’s proposed changes, later abandoned, David Williams, president of the nonprofit Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said he’s skeptical of further action by county government to assess the powers of its inspector general.

“We don’t want this politicized,” said Williams, who has been an opponent of Baltimore City’s inspector general advisory board that has faced resounding criticism for its makeup.

“We have to follow this process so carefully,” he said.

The commission must issue its recommendations to the county council and Olszewski by July 1 and give a final report by Nov. 1.

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