Report: No data to show whether $425,000 Baltimore job fair backed by Mayor Pugh helped residents find work

The Baltimore inspector general found that the first WorkBaltimore job fair — held at the convention center last fall to fanfare from Mayor Catherine Pugh — cost $425,000 and diverted city employees from their regular duties, yet officials could not say how effective it was at helping residents find jobs.

That conclusion is one of the findings of a scathing investigation into the city’s Department of Human Resources. The Baltimore Sun obtained a copy of a summary of the investigation’s report, which the inspector general planned to release publicly Tuesday.

Investigators also found the department took a $100,000 loan from the city’s Innovation Fund to help pay for the Sept. 27, 2017, job fair, but had not repaid the money a year later as it was supposed to.

Report: No data to show whether $425,000 Baltimore job fair backed by Mayor Pugh helped residents find work »

After interviewing more than 40 witnesses, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming also reported on what employees called a “culture of fear” stoked by leaders at the department, which handles human resources for city agencies. The resulting poor morale and productivity had the potential to reverberate through other departments, investigators warned.

In addition, Cumming raised questions about the hiring of a department leader’s daughter and her daughter’s friends to perform as anti-smoking characters “Smokey Crush” and “Leaf.”

The inspector general’s office issued an interim report in late July to city officials.

Mary Talley, the city’s human resources director, resigned soon afterward. Earning $202,000 last year, Talley had been one of the city’s best paid employees. Reached by phone Monday evening, she declined to comment.

Quinton Herbert, a former city labor negotiator, is serving as interim human resources director.

Cumming declined to comment on the report ahead of its release. A spokesman for Pugh was not available to comment.

The first WorkBaltimore job fair was one of Pugh’s signature efforts to get city residents jobs.

“This convention is more than a job fair — it’s a platform for local employers who are actively hiring to connect with and discover the great talent that exists within our city,” Pugh wrote in her weekly newsletter ahead of the first convention. “When it comes to moving Baltimore forward, residents are the ones we're seeking to invigorate our city, and my goal is to ensure that every resident who has a desire to work knows how to access great career and training opportunities.”

The inspector general found numerous problems with the way the inaugural fair was put together; it did not address the two-day 2018 version.

Human resources employees criticized the time and money put into organizing the initial job fair, according to the report. Some employees spent 10 or more hours a week on it, investigators found, “leaving them with inadequate time to complete their basic job functions.” Others were pulled from their regular duties altogether.

The job fair’s $425,000 cost was covered by private donations and sponsorships, money from the department’s budget and the $100,000 loan from the Innovation Fund. The fund is designed to support itself by backing ideas that ultimately save the city money. Loan recipients are supposed to repay the money within a year, but the human resources department failed to do so.

The inspector general reported that there was not enough information available to know whether the fair’s cost was justified or how “successful the event was at securing employment for city residents.”

In addition to the questions about the job fair, investigators documented that department leaders fostered what employees called a “culture of fear.” Investigators concluded department leaders demeaned and ridiculed their employees and those of other city departments, as well as city residents, “damaging morale and causing employees to feel marginalized.”

Employees interviewed by the inspector general worried what would happen to them if officials found out they were cooperating with the investigation, even when investigators guaranteed them anonymity. Department leaders had previously tried to identify an anonymous whistleblower, the inspector general reported.

“Because DHR supports the human resources needs for every city agency, these behaviors potentially impacted citywide operations,” according to the report.

The final section of the report’s summary examines a cigarette smoking cessation program the department began in 2015. City employees complained the program — which cost $26,000 to set up and thousands of dollars a year since — was “childish” and “insulting.” Much of the program’s cost was paying performers $100 each to do one- to two-hour appearances as a cigarette butt named “Smokey Crush” and a tobacco leaf named “Leaf.”

The inspector general found that a human resources department leader — who is not named in the report — hired her daughter and two of her friends to perform as the characters. The department leader didn’t disclose the arrangement in her ethics filings.

“Given the DHR employee’s position and her involvement in the initiative, the OIG determined that the decision to hire her daughter created the appearance of nepotism and thus a conflict of interest,” according to the report.

Investigators said the program also was criticized for not offering real help to people trying to stop smoking: Smokey Crush and Leaf simply handed out a brochure with tips on quitting smoking.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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