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Baltimore inspector general pushes back on oversight, says members of review panel were involved in investigations

Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming called into question the independence of the oversight board charged with reviewing her performance, arguing that multiple members have a conflict of interest because they’ve been part of her investigations.

Cumming’s assertion, made in a letter sent to board chairman and City Solicitor Jim Shea, came just ahead of the panel’s meeting Tuesday. The organizational session was the first ever held by the seven-member advisory committee in accordance with the city charter.

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Cumming previously said she supports the oversight panel and testified in favor of its creation in 2018. But the inspector general now is casting doubt on the board’s composition, saying in the letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun that “Indeed, there are members of the Board who are or have been part of OIG investigations.”

“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. “That perception could cast doubt on the independence of the OIG and deter citizens and employees from coming forward with information about suspected fraud, waste and abuse.”

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Shea briefly addressed the letter at the meeting, arguing 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.

Baltimore’s inspector general office has been under the authority of the oversight panel since 2018 when an amendment to the city’s charter created the panel and removed authority from the city’s mayor. Baltimore City Council voted to put the amendment on the ballot out of concern for the office’s independence.

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.

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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.

The board met for less than an hour and agreed to review Cumming’s performance by September or October. The group is expected to reconvene in August.

Shea raised the issue of the Cumming’s letter during the meeting and argued the panel is legally obligated to meet. The composition of the board cannot be changed without another amendment to the city’s charter, he said, noting that Cumming testified in favor of the amendment creating the board.

“If one of our agencies does become the subject of an investigation of the inspector general, we will take that up individually,” he said.

“To the point that these concerns are ripe or are ripening, the door is open for any assessment of this subject or any other,” Shea added.

Cumming’s letter to the board did not name any members involved in her office’s investigations and she refused to do so after the meeting.

“I absolutely cannot say who,” she said. “We neither confirm nor deny that any investigation is ongoing, and that has been our consistent stance.”

Cumming later clarified she considers complainants, subject matter experts and witnesses to be “part” of investigations.

Shea convened Tuesday’s meeting in the wake of criticism Cumming has faced this year for an investigation 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.

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 the state’s attorney argued that because the nonprofits — not taxpayers — paid for her travels, Mosby had no obligation to request approval.

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 the oversight panel in the wake of the probe.

Council President Nick Mosby’s seat on the panel and his appointment power could present a conflict of interest because he is married to Marilyn Mosby. Nick Mosby opted not to sit on the panel. However, Cumming’s letter is the first contention that other potential conflicts of interest exist.

Cumming’s letter also comes against the backdrop of a fight in neighboring Baltimore County over its inspector general. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is pushing legislation there to establish an oversight panel to monitor Inspector General Kelly Madigan’s office and to amend the law to restrict her access to protected records after multiple County Council members decried her as overly-aggressive and “a bully.”

Cumming’s letter notes the controversy and includes a copy of an open letter written by the Association of Inspectors General last week saying changes proposed by Olszewski would “effectively gag and shackle” the county inspector general.

Cumming acknowledged Tuesday having testified in favor of Baltimore’s charter amendment that created the oversight board. It only recently came to her attention that having a board made up of elected officials is not “best practice,” she said.

“I think that that’s something we all need to examine as a group,” she said. “We’ve all been made aware now.”

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Still, Cumming said she was not attempting to postpone the meeting with her letter nor pressure or intimidate the board.

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“The board has never met, and I think it’s important that they do meet and without question,” she said.

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