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Why Baltimore-area inspectors general are making so much news

The public officials making some of the biggest headlines in the last few weeks aren’t the politicos at the top of the chain of command in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Instead, it’s the officials tasked with keeping government honest in both those jurisdictions — Inspectors General Isabel Mercedes Cumming and Kelly Madigan.

The work of an inspector general isn’t always attention grabbing. The position is responsible for reviewing complaints about potential waste, fraud and abuse in government — investigations that can be quite labor intensive and detail oriented.

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But over the last few weeks and months, Cumming and Madigan have been publicly scrutinized as officials and the public have discussed how to hold them accountable and who should be responsible.

What started the dispute with Cumming?

Cumming has been a target of criticism this year following an investigation she conducted into State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The results of the seven-month probe, which was conducted at Mosby’s request, were released in February and focused on her travel. The report showed Mosby spent 144 days away from Baltimore in 2018 and 2019 — or one workday a week; Mosby’s office has disputed the number of days.

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The inspector general also faulted Mosby for not requesting approval from the city’s spending panel for more than a dozen trips in 2018 and 2019. Nonprofit groups flew her to conferences in destinations such as Kenya, Scotland and Portugal. Private attorneys for Mosby argued that because the nonprofits — not taxpayers — paid for her travels, Mosby had no obligation to request approval.

Baltimore Solicitor Jim Shea reviewed the matter and concluded that Mosby was not required to seek approval because the city’s administrative policies are unclear. The mayor asked the solicitor and city administrators to recommend policy fixes that were recently approved by the Board of Estimates.

In April, the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP called on the city to convene an oversight panel to review the inspector general in the wake of the probe. The oversight panel, which became legally mandated by the city’s charter in 2018, had not ever met until Tuesday.

What happened during the oversight panel meeting?

Officials revealed that Cumming sent them a letter days earlier calling into question the independence of the oversight board. In that letter, Cumming argued multiple members have a conflict of interest because they’ve been “part of” her investigations, which could include filing a complaint, being a witness or more.

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Cumming said previously she supported the oversight panel, and she testified in favor of its creation in 2018. But her letter casts doubt on the board’s composition,

“For these same individuals to sit on a board tasked with evaluating the Inspector General’s performance at the very least creates an appearance of bias, and could hinder the OIG from doing its job with the specter of improper political pressure,” Cumming wrote.

Shea said the board is legally bound to meet in its current structure by the city’s charter.

“I am confident we will not be swayed by the implicit implications of the letter that we are unfit for the office,” Shea said.

Who sits on Baltimore City’s oversight panel?

Under the law, the oversight board includes at least five people: the mayor or his designee, the City Council president or his designee, the comptroller or his designee, the city solicitor or an appointed member of the city law department, and a member of City Council appointed by the council president. If the mayor and council president agree, two additional members take seats: the deans of the law schools at the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore.

The board seated Tuesday includes Shea as well as:

- Michael Huber, Mayor Brandon Scott’s chief of staff, serving in place of the mayor;

- City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, serving in place of Council President Nick Mosby;

- Deputy Comptroller Erika McClammy, serving in place of Comptroller Bill Henry;

- Councilman Eric Costello, City Council’s representative on the board;

- Dean Donald Tobin of the University of Maryland School of Law;

- Dean Ronald Weich of the University of Baltimore School of Law.

What is happening in Baltimore County?

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. drafted legislation to establish an oversight panel similar to Baltimore City’s to monitor county Inspector General Kelly Madigan’s office and to amend the law to restrict her access to protected records after multiple County Council members derided her as overly-aggressive and “a bully.”

Under the proposal, a seven-member board would be charged with appointing an Inspector General and would be empowered to remove them “only for cause” regardless of council or executive input. The board would also have to sign off on the office’s proposed budget and could revise it.

Madigan — who Olszewski appointed to the position he created just 17 months ago — would be compelled to notify the board of an investigation prior to its start and develop “a written work plan that clearly defines the purpose and scope of the investigation, the areas and potential issues to be addressed, the methodologies to be used, and the manner in which the work will be conducted.”

The panel would include members of Olszewski’s administration: the county attorney would serve as chair and members would include the county administrative officer, budget director, council chair, council secretary and two residents approved by the County Executive and council chair, and who have backgrounds in law, public policy or public administration.

Madigan said the proposal “strips the independence of the Inspector General as well as their access to the documents with which to do their job.”

Olszewski has delayed the introduction of the proposal amid criticism. He plans to convene a work group to review it.

What inspired the oversight proposal?

In May, Olszewski said he would propose the creation of the oversight board in response to council members’ upbraiding of Madigan during budget talks. She was chided by three Democratic council members for the way she conducts investigations, which council chair Julian Jones told her “scares people.”

The reprimand was spurred in part by Madigan’s investigation into waste at the Baltimore County Agriculture Center. Her investigation found inappropriate spending of county funds by Chris McCollum, a longtime county employee who directed the Ag Center at the time.

McCollum, who has served as the campaign treasurer for councilwoman Cathy Bevins, resigned from his position as deputy director of Department of Economic Development Friday. Bevins defended McCollum during budget talks.

What do these two disputes have to do with each other?

Last week, the Association of Inspectors General, a national group for government watchdogs, blasted the proposed overhaul of the county’s inspector general office. In an open letter, the group said the proposed changes would “effectively gag and shackle” Madigan.

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The association letter said the county’s proposed oversight board members would provide no “actual independence” because they would be politically appointed. The board would have “excessive authority” over the inspector general and the board’s powers could be used to “influence, intimidate or directly hinder” investigations and audits, the letter said.

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Cumming included a copy of the association’s letter with her recent letter to the Baltimore City oversight board, arguing “similar issues may directly impact” the city advisory board.

Cumming said Tuesday it only recently came to her attention that having a board made up of elected officials is not “best practice.”

Cumming said her letter was not intended, however, to postpone Tuesday’s meeting nor intimidate the members of the board.

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