Baltimore health department wasted $170,000 from lead paint fines on unused giveaways and travel, report finds

In the course of two years, the Baltimore Health Department wasted $170,000 that it raised by fining landlords for lead paint violations and charging attorneys for records to use in lead lawsuits, an investigation by the city’s inspector general found.

The money — which amounted to half the funds spent in 2017 and 2018 — was squandered on promotional goodies that went unused, excessive travel for department managers, and parties and gifts for staff, according to a summary of the inspector general’s investigation released Wednesday.

The investigation also found that despite being warned repeatedly by city lawyers, the department overcharged for documents that attorneys use in court to pursue cases on behalf of people poisoned by lead.

The investigation centers on the department’s Office of Chronic Disease Prevention, which battles lead poisoning, asthma and other illnesses.

Officials interviewed by the inspector general’s investigators gave different opinions about how the lead money should be spent — one said it should only be for fighting lead poisoning, while another said the chronic disease office was free to use it for other efforts.

The underlying problem, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming concluded, was that some Health Department officials considered the money to be private funds, rather than public dollars. One former department executive, who is not named in the report, said the money was raised from “bad landlords; it is not city money.”

“We really just need to start watching the money around here,” Cumming said in an interview.

In a written response to the inspector general, the city’s budget management office confirmed that employees of agencies with “special funds” sometimes come to believe incorrectly that the money can be spent “as they see fit.”

The budget office said it had recommended closing the fund containing the lead paint revenue and that money from its fines and fees should now go into the general fund. The Health Department’s anti-lead efforts also should now be funded through the regular budget, the office said.

Cumming said she planned to look into whether money was being misused in other special funds.

The city’s total special funds budget this year is $117 million, an amount that includes grants as well as funds created from fees and fines. The budget office’s director did not respond to questions about how widespread the issues might be.

In a statement, the Health Department acknowledged it had a poor system for keeping track of inventory, but that “it takes serious issue with the classification of expenditures in the lead fines and fees account as waste.”

The department said using the money to buy promotional items was a proper use of the funds because they could be used to raise awareness about lead poisoning prevention services.

“These are appropriate uses and advanced the programmatic mission of the lead program,” the department said.

But Cumming said the department only stopped ordering promotional materials after investigators let officials know how much of it they already had. In photographs shared by her office, items are piled high on shelves in cardboard boxes. Investigators found baby towels printed with the words “Hug Me! Love Me! Get Me LEAD Tested!” stashed in a filing cabinet.

“They weren’t stopping,” Cumming said. “It isn’t like they were using what they had. It was box after box after box.”

Many of the problems date to when Dr. Leana Wen was the city health commissioner. In a statement issued by Planned Parenthood, where she is now the director, Wen said she worked closely with the inspector general and was committed to eliminating waste and fraud.

“We took swift action the day the OIG brought their findings to our attention, and worked with all involved to address the issue and implement policies and procedures to ensure accountability and transparency,” said Wen, who was health commissioner between January 2015 and last month.

Among the spending the inspector general highlighted in the report:

» Two department directors traveled in June to a conference in California and then to another in July in New Orleans at a cost of $10,685. The New Orleans conference ended on a Thursday afternoon, but the officials stayed over an extra day, using money from the fund for another night’s accommodation, investigators found.

» Some of the money was used for holiday parties and meetings that cost thousands of dollars.

» The money also was used for snacks and office furniture. Purchases include $200 on tea and $150 on honey.

» The department spent $120,000 on giveaway items. Investigators found a stash of more than 55 promotional items including 1,100 earbuds, 1,200 water bottles, 1,500 nail files, 860 Frisbees and 4,500 pens. The items hadn’t been inventoried for years, officials told the investigators. Some of the materials were damaged and no longer usable.

The inspector general also questioned the department’s handling of medical records. During the review, an investigator noticed that the door to the disease prevention office’s records room was wide open, in violation of federal laws regulating the privacy of information about people’s health.

Cumming said investigators also found that the department was overcharging for access to its records under the Maryland Public Information Act — including a $100 “rush fee” that isn’t allowed under the law and selling $10 certificates saying the department didn’t have requested records.

The department maintains medical records on individual children documenting that they have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. It also keeps environmental records that can help attorneys link lead poisoning to a particular address, information that can be useful in a case against a landlord.

The Health Department had been told multiple times since 2015 by the city’s Law Department that it needed to update its records request policies, but hadn’t done so by the time the investigation began, according to the summary.

The inspector general’s office told Wen about the issue and she told her staff to stop charging fees until it was fixed.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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