Council pushes for access to confidential background investigation on Baltimore police commissioner nominee

Members of the Baltimore City Council are pushing Mayor Catherine Pugh to release the results of a background investigation into police commissioner nominee Joel Fitzgerald, with two saying they won’t vote for him without seeing the report.

But City Solicitor Andre Davis said the report is a confidential personnel record and won’t be shared with council members because that could lead to it being released to the general public under Maryland’s public information law.

Fitzgerald was in Baltimore Monday for the first time since Pugh announced his selection before Thanksgiving. He is meeting privately Monday and Tuesday with council members, who will vote on whether to approve his nomination.

The issue of the background check could be an early sticking point in that process.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, is one of those who said he won’t be able to vote in favor of Fitzgerald without seeing the file.

“I want to hear clearly why they think they shouldn’t share that,” Scott said. “Without a doubt, we should be able to see that information before making a decision.”

Fitzgerald could choose to allow the release of the report. But asked at a news conference Monday whether he would do so, he declined to answer directly and said all the information the council members need to make their decision is publicly available.

“That information is readily accessible,” he said.

Scott disputed that.

Google doesn’t give you all the information,” he said. “You won’t get internal affairs documents from Google. You won’t get what a professional background checking agency does from Google.”

The mayor and the council’s leadership have promised unprecedented vetting of Fitzgerald after the previous police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, resigned a few months into the job after being charged with failing to file federal tax returns. After De Sousa’s departure and other questions about high-level appointees’ backgrounds, Davis said the city would revamp its candidate review process.

As it searched for a commissioner, the city hired a Huntersville, N.C., firm of investigators called US ISS Agency to probe Fitzgerald’s personal and professional life, according to a nine-page proposal from the company that Davis’ office released to The Baltimore Sun under a Public Information Act request. The administration has not revealed who else was considered for the job.

Davis declined to say what services the city paid the agency to provide, but the proposal recommended checks into criminal databases, court records and social media profiles, along with interviews of the candidate, his wife, current and former bosses and subordinates. The firm said it could seek to obtain internal affairs records about the candidate from previous employers. The investigators said they could run a credit check, but would not be able to verify if a candidate paid federal and state taxes.

After the investigation was completed, the firm said, it would write up its findings “in plainly understood terms.”

“We believe this thorough process is necessary to give you the clearest picture of each candidate and enable you to make the best hiring decision for this critical position,” wrote Dave Stephens, the company’s director of operations.

The firm said it has helped find public safety and business executives for the city of Charlotte, N.C.; Lowe’s Corp., and the Police Executive Research Forum. Stephens declined to comment, referring questions to the city of Baltimore.

The council has set a two-month timeline for reviewing Fitzgerald’s background and qualifications, including sending a delegation in early December to Fort Worth, Texas, where Fitzgerald is currently police chief.

The mayor is set to formally nominate him next week, which means the council would have to take a final vote by the end of January. Fitzgerald said Monday he intends to continue serving in Texas until the final vote.

While he declined to describe the investigation, Davis said the mayor felt that she received the information she needed to make a decision.

“Given the unprecedented vetting of this candidate, including an actual visit by four council members and staff to Fort Worth, I don’t think there could possibly be any questions about the thoroughness of the review,” he said.

Asked by The Sun for the resume Fitzgerald submitted to the city, Davis said it, too, is a personnel record. He said he checked with the candidate for his permission to release it and that Fitzgerald declined to do so.

Fitzgerald’s resume was entered into the public record when he was confirmed as chief in Fort Worth.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the council president wants to talk to the mayor and her team about the investigator’s report.

Nine other council members reached Friday and Monday said they wanted to have the chance to review the investigators’ report themselves. Ryan Dorsey, the public safety committee’s vice chairman, said, “Under no circumstances will I vote in favor of any candidate for this position without the mayor’s complete background report and file being provided to me.”

Councilman Bill Henry said the mayor’s office should share any information it gathered with members of the council.

“If the administration were to openly admit it had gathered info on the nominee that it was consciously deciding not to share with the council, that for me would raise grave questions about the openness and transparency of the process and would make it difficult for me to vote for the nominee,” Henry said.

Councilman Zeke Cohen said he asked the city solicitor to share vetting records and he plans to make the same request of Fitzgerald.

“Given our recent experience with Commissioner De Sousa, I believe the council and the public deserve transparency,” Cohen said.

Some council members said they would like to see the report, but wouldn’t say whether not being able to review it would be a deciding factor in their vote. Councilman John Bullock said he would like as much information as possible before making up his mind on confirmation. Not seeing the report, he said, “makes it more difficult to make that kind of decision.”

Councilwoman Shannon Sneed said that while she was eager to learn what the investigators found, she was willing to trust the mayor’s judgment and the company’s expertise.

“I would hope that the mayor would make the best decision to say, ‘This is something we don’t need to go forward’ or ‘This is nothing, let’s go forward,’” Sneed said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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