Md. needs one inspector general to oversee all agencies

Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal that the General Assembly create the position of inspector general with jurisdiction over the state’s 24 local school systems does not go nearly far enough. The problems of fraud, waste and abuse in Maryland are not limited to school systems.

What happened with Dallas Dance in the Baltimore County school system could happen in any state agency because of the absence of an effective watchdog. If the governor wants to do something worthwhile about corruption, he should ask the General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 that would establish an independent Office of Inspector General with jurisdiction over all state agencies.

There is no inspector general with statewide jurisdiction in Maryland. Three state agencies, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Health, have inspector general offices. The latter two exist primarily to investigate welfare and Medicaid fraud, respectively.

According to the Association of Inspectors General, 12 states have inspector general offices with statewide jurisdiction. Another state, Florida, requires each state agency to have its own inspector general’s office, coordinated by a chief inspector general for the state.

Our neighbor to the north, Pennsylvania, fed up with corruption in state agencies, recently beefed up the powers of its inspector general. In 2017, its Inspector General’s Office was transformed into a law enforcement agency with the power to issue subpoenas and search warrants.

Governor Hogan’s proposal is a classic political half-measure. It is designed to give the appearance of doing something about a problem without rocking the boat or accomplishing much. It is reminiscent of the creation of the office of the Maryland State Prosecutor in 1976.

Shamed by a wave of federal indictments of state officials (including a governor and a former governor), the General Assembly decided that the state itself needed to do something about the rampant corruption. So, it did as little as possible.

The General Assembly did not give the state prosecutor the same power as a state’s attorney to issue subpoenas for records until 2008, or the same power to compel a witness to testify in court or before a grand jury in exchange for “derivative use immunity” until 2014. The state prosecutor once had a computer forensics laboratory to assist in the collection of evidence from computers and other digital devices, but that was eliminated in 2016 because of budgetary constraints.

The ambivalence of governors and the General Assembly toward the office continues to this day. The state prosecutor is authorized 13 employees. That’s 13 investigators, lawyers and support staff to investigate and prosecute corruption in every agency of state and local government in Maryland. In fairness to the office, it does its best with what it is given.

There is a measure on November’s ballot asking city voters to approve an independent inspector general’s office for the City of Baltimore. The governor’s insurance commissioner, friend and Republican candidate for Baltimore County Executive, Al Redmer Jr., has proposed the same thing for Baltimore County. I know that you won’t want to emulate the city, governor, so perhaps you could follow your friend’s excellent idea.

The structure of Maryland state government makes it especially vulnerable to corruption. There’s a myriad of independent state agencies, such as sheriffs’ and state’s attorney’s offices, that operate with almost no oversight.

Agencies within the executive branch are also susceptible to corruption, particularly in the area of procurement. Last year, a former head of the Department of Information Technology was indicted by a federal grand jury on bribery charges involving state IT contracts while she was with another state agency.

The departments of Transportation and Information Technology alone award contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the purchase of goods and services. Neither the Department of Transportation nor the Department of Information Technology has inspector general offices.

Earlier this year, Sun columnist Dan Rodricks ruefully observed that “Maryland has one of the richest histories of political corruption in the country.” And the headline of a Sun story written after former State Sen. Nathaniel Oaks pled guilty to federal bribery charges in March posed the question: “Is enough being done to stop corruption?”

The answer clearly is No.

Why does one of the richest states in the country also have “one of the richest histories of political corruption?” Because the governor and the sclerotic leadership of the General Assembly have been unwilling to do anything about it.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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