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The Dripby Brew Editors8:45 amAug 31, 20210

Full Text: Inspector General Cumming addresses IG Advisory Board

Above: Isabel Mercedes Cumming answers questions from the IG Advisory Board. (CharmTV)

Opening statement by Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming at last week’s meeting of the newly-formed Advisory Board:

Good afternoon Chairman Shea, members of the Inspector General Advisory Board and citizens attending from home.

My name is Isabel Mercedes Cumming. With me today is the Deputy Inspector General for Administration Yvonne Brooks and Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Michelle Phillips.

I was appointed the fifth Inspector General of Baltimore in January 2018. My educational experience includes a master’s degree in Business and a Juris Doctorate. I earned both degrees at night while working full time here in Baltimore City.

My professional background includes a decade of auditing in Baltimore, two decades as a financial crimes prosecutor in Baltimore and throughout Maryland, and another decade of IG work in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. I am the first female and first Hispanic to hold this position.

In November 2018, the citizens of Baltimore voted overwhelmingly to make the Office of the Inspector General “independent.” Since taking office, our team has worked tirelessly to earn the citizens trust and confidence, knowing their complaints would be heard and objectively evaluated without any undue influence, bias or politics.

After the law went into effect, I immediately asked when the advisory board would meet. Despite my and others attempts, the advisory board never convened over the next three fiscal years.

However, the OIG forged ahead. Both the budgets and annual reports were always submitted on time, and the performance benchmarks outlined for the office were consistently met or exceeded. I’d like to talk about performance.

Accomplishments

The OIG performance metrics are detailed in our recently released annual report. Highlights include fielding more than 700 complaints for the second year in a row and identifying more than $7 million in waste and savings this past fiscal year.

Since taking office, our team has received more than 1,800 complaints, authored more than 120 reports and documented savings or waste of more than $11 million.

We have also added ethics and whistleblower oversight to our office, resulting in over 1,000 calls alone to help with financial disclosures. The ethics disclosures are now back online and available for anyone to review. Our team remains diligent and will continue to root out waste and fraud.

In late May of this year, we learned the advisory board would be meeting in July – 32 months after the 2018 law was passed. That law mandated the Advisory Board embrace four main functions.

The first two include:

• Help keep the OIG’s budgetary process free from political influence by having this advisory board present the budget directly to the Board of Estimates.

• Complete an annual performance review of the inspector general.

Neither of these items was ever completed. Yet we kept moving forward in the absence of an operating board. During the last budget process, I again had to present my budget to the City Council budget committee which happens to have two members on this board.

Regarding oversight, before the first advisory board meeting, the my office had requested and was accepted for a professional peer review by the Association of Inspectors General, which is scheduled for next year. This is important because a national peer review provides an independent professional review of an inspector general’s performance.

Baltimore County Example

Earlier this year and prior to the first meeting of Baltimore City’s advisory board, a new bill was put forth in Baltimore County. The bill sought to add an OIG Advisory Board and limit the powers of their Inspector General.

The proposed make-up of the Baltimore County board was like the city board (five elected or appointed government employees and two members of higher education). In a matter of just three business days, the bill was withdrawn due to major public outcry and criticism.

Recently a Baltimore County councilperson who was most critical of the IG wrote in her newsletter, “It’s clear that any oversight board cannot be comprised of political appointees or anyone who may find themselves in front of the inspector general.” The Baltimore County Executive now agrees with her and said going forward no county workers or elected officials will be on their advisory board.

The situation in Baltimore County solidified my concerns that the city’s 2018 law concerning the IG advisory board had major flaws.

Some flaws are becoming more evident while others have been hidden. Again, these issues were not previously highlighted because there was never an opportunity to do so.

The concern is not, and was never, about the qualifications of each board member here today. Rather the issue is of independence from politics and influence.

Members of the Inspector General Advisory Board.

Members of Baltimore’s IG Advisory Board.

The City Exception

Baltimore City stands alone in its departure from national best practices. In a review of 25 independent state and local Inspector General offices around the country – only seven had advisory boards. Of those seven, only two had any elected or politically appointed officials on their advisory board.

But only Baltimore City has an advisory board made up exclusively of elected or appointed government employees. Asking the law school deans to join can only happen when 2 elected officials, the mayor and the City Council president, agree to the arrangement. I am grateful they are currently on this board.

The operation of the Baltimore City OIG has been recognized as a national success story.

The Bloomberg Group asked me to testify regarding the formation of an independent OIG in Atlanta. They considered the Baltimore OIG a model to emulate. Atlanta mirrored much of what we developed operationally in Baltimore.

However, the board make-up was rejected. Instead, they decided on a composition of nine people from the ranks of citizens leaders, professional groups and educational leaders. None can work for the City of Atlanta nor have matters within the jurisdictional oversight of the OIG.

When Baltimore citizens voted for OIG independence in 2018, it was thought citizens were voting to make this office free from interference of any political nature. Let me be very clear:

No OIG complainant should hesitate in making a complaint or ever have to worry whether their complaints concerning a member of this board will be handled objectively and without prejudice,

Nor should any complainant fear retaliation simply because the person, or reporting stream, they may be complaining about sits on or, has influence with this board

The public should never wonder if a report is biased or is fully accurate because the subject of an investigation sits on or is influenced by a member of this Board.

No citizen of Baltimore should be concerned whether a future inspector general has the fortitude to stand up to, or investigate, their own board.

This office cannot publicly disclose a conflict because the OIG will not breach confidentiality or disrupt the integrity of our investigative process.

The Inherent Flaw

Over the past few years, this office has investigated cases with individuals or departments whose positions are represented on this advisory board. Of the more than 120 reports all but one impacted the departments or position of the people sitting on this Board. There is an inherent flaw in Baltimore’s model.

The two remaining functions of this board are:

• To remove the current inspector general for one of three reasons listed in the law.

• To select the next inspector general.

These two points highlight additional flaws in Baltimore’s advisory board model. This board is inherently a political board. The OIG is, and is expected to be, one that avoids any political influence.

It is important to note that in November 2020, a ballot initiative passed naming the inspector general as the only non-political official authorized to initiate proceedings to remove the Mayor, City Council president, any Council member, or the comptroller.

“The Inspector General is the only non-political official authorized to initiate proceedings to remove the mayor, City Council president, any Council member or the comptroller.

“Each one of those positions is represented on this advisory board. If an Inspector General were to be removed by this board, political motives may rightfully be suspected”  – IG Isabel Cumming.

Each one of those positions is represented on this board. If an inspector general were to be removed by this board, political motives may rightfully be suspected. The implications of elected officials choosing their own watchdog are unmistakable.

I look forward to completing the remaining three years of my term and working with an advisory board to ensure the future success of the inspector general office.

How to Remedy the Flaw

We share a responsibility to leave things better than we found them. These issues are raised now so the law can be corrected for the future inspectors general.

I sincerely hope this has clarified the issues to this board and to the public. Again, to remedy these flaws, Baltimore’s citizens have the power to put this correction on the next ballot with 10,000 signatures. I recommend this occur in November 2022.

Let me leave you with these words from the late Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings, who served for years as the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

While discussing the importance of Inspectors General at a hearing, Rep. Cummings called for the support of Inspectors General, saying:

“We will protect whistleblowers, we will protect government employees and we will protect those who wants to make our government the best it can be.” He went on to state that when employees are afraid, inspectors general are “the last line of defense.”

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