It’s only January, but already 2022 is proving to be a good year for exposing possible public corruption in Maryland thanks, in large part, to the efforts of two inspectors general — Baltimore’s City’s Isabel Mercedes Cumming and Baltimore County’s Kelly Madigan. The former has played a significant role in scrutinizing the personal finances of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby over which she was recently indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of perjury and making false statements. And the latter recently filed a report detailing the cozy relationship between a prominent Baltimore County developer and a former county official who accepted free basketball tickets and parking passes from someone he was supposed to be regulating.
These are merely allegations, of course. No one has been convicted of any wrongdoing. But given the compelling paper trail officials have so far provided — down to emails involving Howard Brown, chair of David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd., and Arnold E. Jablon, who served as director of the Baltimore County Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections between 2011 and 2018 — let’s just say it doesn’t look especially good for the cause of ethical purity. “Just a note to let Howard know I do want those 6 tickets to the Big Ten tourney!” Mr. Jablon allegedly wrote at one point.
Such revelations don’t happen by accident. They require skilled financial investigators with sufficient resources to do their job and a free hand to do it. How best to oversee inspectors general has been an issue in both these jurisdictions. In Baltimore County, for example, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. initially sought to appoint an oversight board but backed down under criticism that it included too many elected officials. He is now waiting for his appointed work group chaired by a retired Maryland Court of Appeals judge to produce oversight recommendations with a final report due Nov. 1.
Yet the challenge of oversight seems eminently solvable. The far greater problem is what happens when you don’t have a watchdog at all. And that’s where the vast majority of counties find themselves today. Outside of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, only Montgomery County maintains an equivalent office in Maryland. Even state government has no statewide IG, although a handful of agencies have their own. Given this state’s unfortunate history with public corruption, one would think that extra care would be taken. Alas, that never seems to happen.
That’s not to suggest unethical behavior gets ignored entirely in other subdivisions or in state government. In Anne Arundel, for example, there is an auditor who reports to the County Council and primarily looks over the county’s financial dealings, and a seven-member ethics commission that holds hearings on alleged violations of public ethics laws. But the level of scrutiny is not the same. Can you name any newsworthy action by either? Go ahead and run an internet search. Either Anne Arundel, whose first county executive, Joseph W. Alton Jr., spent seven months in Allenwood Federal Prison Camp on charges related to a kickback scheme, is squeaky clean these days, or it’s simply not getting the same level of scrutiny. Why take that chance when you don’t have to?
Those who are still unconvinced ought to take a look at the Baltimore County report. It centers on a development, Metro Centre at Owings Mills, that county officials ought to be supporting. The $220 million mixed-use development takes advantage of the location’s easy access to the Baltimore region’s sole subway line. It should have been built. There is a compelling public interest to do so. And waiving permit fees might well have been justified to encourage such transit-oriented development. But doing so without public discussion, without transparency and while simultaneously accepting gifts? That should have been seen as a line as clear and as dangerous to cross as any electrified subway track. Yet people who see such “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” behavior as routine are unlikely to ever raise objections. And every county has its share of commercial land owners and developers looking for special favors, a rezoning here or a special use there, who already fork over big bucks to candidates’ political campaigns.
Four years ago, Mr. Olszewski took office with a mandate to restore public trust in government, promising an accountability office that eventually became the inspector general. Clearly, his feet must still be held to the fire. Meanwhile, voters from Elkton to Ellicott City and beyond ought be asking those who are seeking public office on the county level if they would back creating an independent IG office, too. And if not, why not? Voters will surely rest easier knowing they have their own watchdog guarding local government.
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