Gov. Martin O'Malley has chosen a former prosecutor and juvenile justice official from Virginia to take over Maryland's troubled Department of Juvenile Services, reeling from the slaying of a teacher last year and revelations of more than $170 million in unsanctioned contracts.
O'Malley is expected to name Sam Abed, 35, today to succeed former Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore. Abed, who began working last week, is scheduled to tour the crowded Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center later in the day.
"I am grateful that Sam chose to step forward and use his many talents to help us continue to make progress for Maryland's most vulnerable youth and their families," O'Malley said in a statement.
Abed spent less than five years as a deputy director of Virginia's juvenile justice agency, which is a part of that state's Department of Public Safety. In Maryland, the head of juvenile services is a cabinet-level post, reporting directly to the governor.
"Once you start working in this industry, it kind of gets in your blood," Abed said in an interview. "It's very fulfilling."
The nomination has met with some skepticism, given Abed's limited time in juvenile justice. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell expressed reservations about such a resume.
"This is not an area where you want to test someone out — someone who may or may not get the job done," said O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican. "It's too big a risk. We're talking about people whose lives are at stake, literally."
O'Malley aides say the governor was impressed by Abed's work ethic and enthusiasm, describing him as "a rising star." But they acknowledged initial reservations about his relative lack of experience.
"We drilled on that issue with his references," said Kristen Mahoney, who has served as interim juvenile services director and helped select Abed. "They all said Sam was groomed to take over the agency" in Virginia.
Matt Gallagher, O'Malley's chief of staff, said the panel that interviewed Abed was "impressed with his command of the Virginia system and the amount of research he had done on Maryland's system."
Abed, who becomes the first Muslim member of O'Malley's cabinet, said he is "absolutely" ready for the Maryland job. Assuming he is confirmed by the state Senate — typically, a formality — he will oversee a $277 million budget, about 2,000 employees and more than 10,000 young people who have been in trouble with the law.
"My top concern is going to be safety and security," he said. The system has "bright spots, but also areas that need addressing," he said, but he declined to discuss specifics, saying he wanted to learn the inner working of the agency and talk to employees first.
DeVore came to Maryland with about 30 years of experience in juvenile justice, including time as a federal and independent monitor of struggling detention facilities in Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon. He served throughout O'Malley's first term but announced shortly after the November election that he would be resigning. He left about a month ago.
Lawmakers have not yet been introduced to Abed. Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who has closely followed juvenile justice issues over the years, said Abed "might make sense for this agency."
"After so many decades of decay, we need someone with fresh ideas," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "The main requirement for the job, in my mind, is to come in like a house afire and change things dramatically."
Former Virginia Juvenile Justice Director Barry Green, Abed's boss at the agency, said he quickly transformed from "somebody we had no idea about to someone who really became a leader." Green said Abed often stepped in to manage the agency.
Abed was selected from a field of a dozen candidates across the country, according to an O'Malley spokesman, and was offered the job about a week ago. He slipped unnoticed into the State House last week to watch the governor's State of the State Address and planned to spend the weekend looking for a home in Maryland.
The city juvenile lockup that Abed is slated to tour Monday has been criticized over the years as overcrowded and underequipped. It was one of three Maryland's youth facilities that emerged from federal court-ordered monitoring under DeVore.
DeVore's first act as secretary was to close Bowling Brook Academy, a privately run facility in Carroll County where a Baltimore teenager died after being restrained by staff members.
Last year, the body of Hannah Wheeling was found outside the low-security cottage for troubled boys in Prince George's County where she was a teacher. She had been sexually assaulted and bludgeoned.
A 13-year-old boy at the facility was charged. He is awaiting trial.
DeVore faced criticism throughout his tenure, culminating with the release of an audit last year that revealed about $170 million in contracts for work performed without the necessary approval of the state Board of Public Works.
Days before DeVore announced his resignation, board member Peter Franchot publicly scolded him for "administrative sloppiness" and having "no credible explanation for why it happened."
Abed was appointed deputy director of Virginia's Department of Juvenile Justice in 2006 by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, and remained on the job after Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell took office a year ago. He left in November.
Aides to O'Malley, a Democrat, cited Kaine's recommendation of Abed as key.