'Nobody is off limits': Baltimore's new inspector general says she'll root out waste and fraud

Just days into the job, Baltimore’s new inspector general says she plans to reinvigorate the office and hire more staff to scrutinize city practices for waste and fraud.

“Nobody is off limits,” said Isabel Cumming, 55, who is the city’s first female inspector general.

“We can really save some money for the city of Baltimore,” Cumming said. “Overtime situations, theft of time. Purchase cards. There are so many areas that need to be looked at. ...

“I love going after white-collar criminals.”

The position has been vacant since Robert H. Pearre Jr. resigned in September 2016.

Cumming said she expects to operate without political influence.

“We’re supposed to look at what makes an impact for Baltimore city,” she said. “I’m a very, very apolitical person. My job is to look at everybody.”

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said Cumming “knows how to operate independently to be fair and just. … Whatever she decides needs to be investigated, she has free rein to do that.”

Pearre, who served under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has suggested the inspector general needs such freedom. He and former City Solicitor George Nilson recently wrote an Abell Foundation report recommending more independence for the agency.

The office was created in 2005 by an executive order issued by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. The idea was to establish an independent, internal watchdog to investigate city operations.

But Pearre and Nilson wrote that the executive order does not shield the office from interference by mayors or their senior staff. To have full independence, they recommended recasting the office with a City Council ordinance that would prohibit mayoral administrations from firing an inspector general except for cause. In addition, they recommended six-year terms for the position, creating a community oversight panel and prohibiting certain officials from interfering with investigations.

Cumming said she liked those ideas, but said Pugh has assured her she can operated independently.

“This will be my shop,” said Cumming, who will be paid $145,000 a year.

City Solicitor Andre Davis, who hired Cumming, said he has “high expectations” for the office.

In one year during Pearre’s tenure, the office saved the city about $9 million by preventing waste, recovering money and avoiding unnecessary expenses. One investigation led to $8 million in restitution from city government workers who accepted bribes from trash haulers.

The office has not released any investigative reports or audits since Pearre left office for what he said were personal and family matters.

“We’re full speed ahead rooting out fraud, waste and abuse,” Davis said. “I think Isabel is just the person to bring that office to life very quickly.”

Cumming has prosecuted white-collar crimes in Baltimore, Prince George’s County and Washington. She worked on the theft prosecution of former Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, and helped prosecute a former Garrett County sheriff for misconduct in office.

Cumming has been an assistant inspector general of investigation for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; an economic crimes prosecutor in Baltimore’s state’s attorney’s office; a bank auditor; and chief of economic crimes in the Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s office.

Former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey said Cumming turned around his office’s pursuit of fraud and theft.

“She took a moribund economic crime unit and turned it into one of the best in the state,” Ivey said. “She was doing trainings around the state. She really transformed it. She made it a very effective effective unit.”

Ivey said Cumming was skilled at training younger employees how to prosecute white-collar cases.

“She was very hard-working and did a good job of managing the staff we had,” he said. “Usually people show up because they want to [prosecute] homicides. Sometimes it’s harder to train prosecutors to handle economic crime. It’s a very different skill set.”

Cumming said the inspector general’s office now gets about 100 complaints a year from concerned residents. She wants to increase that to at least 250.

“I want everybody to know our hot line number,” she said.

She said she plans to fill three vacant positions, and probe areas like overtime pay and contracts.

“I want a lot more focus on procurement,” she said. “Fighting fraud is part of my DNA.”

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

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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