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Pugh plans to announce new Baltimore inspector general to fill long-vacant position soon

Mayor Catherine Pugh said her administration will announce the hire of a new city inspector general “very soon” to fill the long-vacant internal watchdog position.

Pugh and city solicitor Andre M. Davis have screened and interviewed several candidates, Pugh said Wednesday, and a new inspector general is expected to be named early in the new year.

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The position has been filled on an interim basis by Stephen J. Lesniewski since September 2016, when former inspector general Robert H. Pearre Jr. resigned.

“We need an office of inspector general both to uncover fraud, waste and abuse and, equally important, to deter” it, Davis said. “The likelihood of honesty and integrity is increased significantly if you have an office of the inspector general. I think it’s critical.”

Pugh said the new choice will have “free rein” to investigate anyone in city government.

“No one is off limits,” Pugh said.

The office has not released any investigative reports, program reviews or audits since Pearre left near the end of the Rawlings-Blake administration. He cited personal and family matters.

The former FBI agent served three years in the job. He earned an annual salary of $135,000.

The office logged more than 100 new cases between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017. In a report for the fiscal year, the office described some of its investigations. A police detective pleaded guilty to workers compensation fraud and was ordered to pay $1,200 in court-ordered restitution and serve a year of probation. A city worker was found to have used city equipment to mow the lawn of a private residence while on the clock; the Department of Public Works took personnel action.

In the past, the office has produced significant findings. In 2012, inspectors found that officials in the mayor’s technology office were quietly using an existing contract to spend nearly $675,000 on phone and computer equipment to start replacing the system while the city’s comptroller was seeking bids to upgrade the phones.

Under Pearre, inspectors found that city workers had accepted bribes from trash haulers; they were ordered to pay the city more than $8 million in restitution. A former technology contracting firm pleaded guilty to theft and was ordered to repay the city $165,000.

Davis, the former federal judge who took over the city law department in September, said the inspector general’s office has remained active under Lesniewski’s interim leadership, despite the lack of visibility and a loss of staff.

“The work hasn’t stopped,” Davis said. “There have been well over 100 matters opened in the last 15 months, and more than 50 remain open.”

Lesniewski, who was Pearre’s top deputy, delayed some hiring and slowed the release of information in deference to his eventual successor, Davis said. Lesniewski did not apply for the job, Davis said.

Under Pearre, the office had eight employees, including six agents. Staffing dropped to five during the last year. A new agent was hired recently to fill one of the vacancies.

Pearre and former City Solicitor George Nilson have co-authored an Abell Foundation report calling for the office to be restructured to give the inspector general more independence.

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The office was created in 2005 by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. The idea was to create an independent, internal watchdog to investigate the city’s operations. But Pearre and Nilson say the executive order does not shield the office from the potential for interference by the mayor or chief of staff.

To have full independence, they say, the office should be recast using a City Council ordinance that would allow the inspector general to be fired only for cause, and would authorize the office to establish a volunteer community oversight council to help guide public outreach.

The inspector general should be appointed by the city solicitor, they said, but the council would be included in the hiring and termination process.

An inspector general should be appointed for a six-year term, eclipsing a mayoral term, they said. They also called for stronger prohibitions to block certain officials from interfering with investigations.

Robin J. Kempf, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said taking steps to ensure the independence of an inspector general can improve government accountability.

“What will make it a success is if the mayor and City Council get behind it and support it and say, ‘We want to know what bad stuff is going on, because we’re also interested in rooting it out,’” Kempf said. “If it’s a fight and there is distrust, then everybody loses.”

Councilman John Bullock, a member of the council’s judiciary and legislative investigations committee, said officials should consider whether the office has the latitude and resources needed to give it the best chance of finding corruption.

He said he is disappointed that the office has been in limbo since Pearre left.

“I would have liked to see someone in that position sooner,” Bullock said. “It is an important role for the city. We’re talking about someone who will be a watchdog.”

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, also a member of the council’s judiciary committee, said restructuring the office using a charter amendment on November’s ballot could be an appropriate way to insulate the inspector general from politics.

“We need to restructure the job so there is more independence built into it, so he or she can go higher up the ladder on investigations and feel confident if they do an honest job that they won’t lose their job,” Clarke said. “A charter amendment would tie the knot tightly.”

Pugh said she would await a recommendation from the city solicitor on whether the office should be restructured.

“I have great faith in Andre Davis,” Pugh said. “He will structure the office as he sees fit in the interest of the citizens of Baltimore.”

Davis said he will review the Abell report and consult with the mayor before taking a position on whether changes need to be made in the way the office and the inspector general function.

First, he said, “it’s important that we get someone in pronto. We’re going to be in a position to make an announcement very soon.”

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