A way back for Md. Republicans

Republicans reeling from losses in Maryland's general election should not wallow in malaise. They are so marginalized their influence can only expand. One way they can seize high ground is to publicize and hold hearings on rampant waste and fraud in state government and become advocates for whistleblowers.

The perception that Maryland is a squeaky clean, well-managed liberal haven is false. It may have a AAA bond rating and be run by a governor who puts lots of data online, but look no farther than the Office of Legislative Audits within the Department of Legislative Services for evidence to the contrary. Combined, the audits show potentially hundreds of millions in lost dollars at a time when the state faces a $1.1 billion deficit.

The nonpartisan OLA churns out audits of state agencies that regularly reveal public corruption. Their findings receive about as much attention as news that one more person was murdered in a Baltimore City drug deal.

On Friday the office released a report on the Baltimore Region of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that found "serious procedural and record keeping deficiencies relating to the Region's general and inmate working funds." Among many issues, auditors found multiple withdrawals for salary advances and other disbursements that were "questionable."

A September report found no documentation that the Board of Directors of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum authorized the opening of a $1 million line of credit to cover funding shortfalls. As the audit points out, state law requires the Baltimore-based museum of African-American history and culture to raise matching non-public funds for each state dollar. This means that the museum could have received taxpayer grants based on debt, which in turn was only issued because of the implicit backing of taxpayers.

A 2007 report revealed that some Maryland Aviation Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority employees spent their entire day downloading porn.

Many times problems are repeats of past audits, leading a rational observer to think that nothing changes. This shouldn't be a surprise. The majority party has no incentive to hold the foot soldiers of its agenda accountable so long as they keep supporting them at the polls. Republicans, on the other hand, have everything to gain by showing taxpayers they care about how their money is used.

And audits are not the only starting point for identifying waste and fraud.

Whistleblowers can also be great sources of information. However, the number of whistleblower complaints filed and prosecuted in the state suggests employees do not feel safe reporting abuses of power within the system. In 2009 only five whistleblower complaints were filed by state employees, all of which were dismissed as having no probable cause. In 2008 there were six complaints filed, with one listed as pending and five dismissed, according to the state's annual personnel report.

Many employees probably fear the outcome faced by Eugene Simmers, a 37-year employee of the State Highway Administration, who documented that state contractors in his agency falsified time sheets and were billing the state for commuting in violation of reimbursement rules, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. As Mr. Simmers said, "They used the State Highway Administration like an ATM machine."

E-mails and timesheets show a contractor lied about his hours, billing for full days when he had called in sick or late. Mr. Simmers also videotaped a contractor coming in hours later than he noted on time sheets. He told his supervisor and other officials about the incidents, to no avail.

This is the same agency that in 2004 was found by the OLA to have bypassed the competitive bid process in awarding contracts and gave a $750,000 contract to a company where a management employee's wife worked. The auditors' findings were so serious that they forwarded them to law enforcement. Given the agency's history, officials should have immediately taken Mr. Simmers' complaints seriously.

Instead, Mr. Simmers has been on unpaid leave since October 14, awaiting termination for allegedly misusing his state car. (Some of the charges against him do not make sense, including one that would have had him driving 60 miles from his home in his own car on a day off to pick up a state car and drive it 44 miles for personal use.)

No wonder only a few state employees each year attempt to raise concerns about illegal or improper behavior in their agencies. Republicans could change that by working with the majority party to provide an outlet for those who want to report corruption but fear the consequences of telling a supervisor. They should also work with their Democratic colleagues to ensure those committing fraud are fired and funding is put on hold or cut for agencies where auditors find repeat problems. Winning trust is the first step toward winning legislative seats.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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