Watchdog at City Hall

In an ironic twist, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, the council member who spoke up loudest in opposition to a plan last year to slash the budget of Baltimore's inspector general, finds himself in the crosshairs of the city government watchdog over spending on a computer contract. According to a report filed by Inspector General David N. McClintock, Mr. Young's office paid a private contractor who was already working for the transportation department $3,700 to work on his website without establishing a new agreement for the work.

As municipal scandals go, this doesn't amount to much. Not only is the money involved minuscule but the contractor actually did the work for which he was paid; the whole incident appears to be more a matter of sloppy adherence to protocol than anything approaching actual corruption. But it does suggest something important: After years of lackluster performance and investigations totally unrelated to its mission of rooting out fraud, waste and inefficiency in city government, the inspector general's office is doing its job.

Mr. McClintock, an attorney and former police officer, was appointed to the post in February by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to replace Hilton Green, who had resigned months before amid then-Council President Rawlings-Blake's efforts to slash his budget. Mr. Green had the backing of then-Mayor Sheila Dixon and Mr. Young, who said the office had "done a really, really good job." But that job involved a lengthy investigation into the death of contractor Robert Clay, which had been ruled a suicide but which Mr. Green, evidently, suspected was something more sinister. In the meantime, his tenure turned up nothing more substantial for its $500,000 annual budget than a few thousand dollars in misappropriated funds. But even that was hard to discern; Mr. Green filed only one of his required the annual reports, and that came a year and a half late.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the change since Mr. McClintock took over is that he filed an annual report after being in office for just six months. He's started posting reports of his investigations on the agency's website as they are completed, and he's even begun issuing his office's news on Twitter. He's tracking the tips that come in, where they come from, what agencies they deal with, and the outcomes of the cases. He's recommending systems improvements and keeping track of how often they're implemented.

And he's made headlines a few times. The office uncovered $12,700 in sick leave, vacation and holiday pay that a Department of Public Works employee received while he was in jail serving an eight-month sentence for child sexual abuse. The case was referred to the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, which declined to prosecute, and is now being pursued in a civil action by the city law department.

The IG also followed up on a tip that a housing inspector was taking money from residents in exchange for official action or inaction. The inspector is now being prosecuted for bribery. Another investigation, launched before Mr. McClintock took over the department, found that a Department of Public Works employee had been pilfering diesel fuel and selling it for $1 a gallon. The scheme, which dated to 1997, amounted to 101,000 gallons of stolen fuel. The state's attorney's office successfully prosecuted the matter, resulting in an eight-year suspended sentence and an order to repay $187,000.

Mr. McClintock has an office of just four people and relies mostly on tips from current and former city government employees and from average residents. (They can be submitted anonymously by e-mailing oig@baltimorecity.gov or calling 800-417-0430.) He says his goal is to identify not just individual cases of questionable conduct but also systems of behavior that are conducive to waste, fraud and abuse.

That means the impact of his actions can go beyond the amount of money involved in any particular case. In the instance of the man who collected his paycheck while in jail, Mr. McClintock's office discovered deficiencies in Department of Public Works procedures that prevented the problem from being discovered in the first place and secured an executive order from Mayor Rawlings-Blake requiring city employees to report when they are arrested. If the corrective actions the office suggested prevent similar situations, the impact could go well beyond a mere $12,700.

The case of the computer work in Mr. Young's office may not amount to much, but it is reminiscent of a similar but much larger issue when Ms. Dixon was council president. She paid her former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, at least $600,000 to work on the council's computers over a six year period, most of it without a contract. Officials in her office even coached Mr. Clark on how to submit invoices to avoid scrutiny at the Board of Estimates. Perhaps that — or any number of other unethical acts by Ms. Dixon — might have been avoided if an active inspector general had been snooping around.

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