Earlier this month, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy issued an unusual memorandum. Titled “Attempted Bribes,” it informed her staff that “City of Baltimore employees are not permitted to accept bribes.”
Defining bribery as “the offering, giving, receiving or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing an action or the discharge of official duties by a public official,” Kennedy said such activities violate the Baltimore City Ethics Law and could lead to criminal charges.
“Unfortunately,” she noted, “third parties may attempt to bribe employees to ensure a positive outcome.”
Kennedy listed the processing of permits, performing building inspections, issuing housing code violations, and acquiring and disposing of property as potential interactions where the flashing of folded bills or the passing of free tickets could take place.
Her August 10 memo came on the heels of a Management Alert by Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming, which found that building inspectors weren’t sure what to do when they were offered cash or gift cards.
One inspector said a contractor had slipped him an envelope stuffed full of $100 bills during an inspection, “suggesting it was for lunch.”
Another inspector told his boss that he had been handed money and didn’t know what to do.
Keep it, the boss said, “because it was under an allowable dollar limit,” according to Cumming.
“Culture of acceptance”
“We kept hearing the same stories – cash in envelopes and free lunches for inspectors,” Cumming said, speaking to The Brew yesterday after the release of a brief synopsis of her findings.
“We learned that there was a culture of acceptance in the department as long as the bribe was under a certain dollar amount.”
The amount frequently cited as acceptable, she said, was $50 or less.
“There is an attitude that taking a small amount of money isn’t a bribe” – IG Isabel Mercedes Cumming.
What surprised Cumming the most was that the city government does not have procedures in place for employees to follow when cash, free tickets, food, lodging and other gratuities are offered for favorable treatment.
“We found that housing and a lot of other agencies don’t have any reporting process when an attempted bribe is made.”
The city ethics law prohibits public servants from soliciting or accepting “gifts” from a lobbyist, contractor or anyone else who “has a financial interest that might be materially affected by the public servant’s official duties.”
But the law has plenty of loopholes, including that a gift must be “significant” (over $20 for a single gift and more than $60 for a series of gifts from the same person).
A city official can accept tickets “to attend charitable, cultural or political events,” and free food can be eaten and drinks imbibed if the public servant participates in a panel discussion or speaks at an event.
Many of these rules (and their multiple exceptions) cover only elected officials.
“We’re putting it out there that taking any money is wrong and can result in you losing your job” – IG Cumming.
For Baltimore’s 13,000 civil servants, everyone should know that accepting cash, gifts or other forms of payola – no matter how small – is subject to criminal penalties under Maryland’s Bribery of a Public Employee statute, Cumming said.
“There is an attitude that taking a small amount of money isn’t a bribe. We’re putting it out there that taking any money or other gratuities is wrong and can result in you losing your job.
“And we want people to know that we’re definitely following up on complaints. Employees should report any bribery attempts to our office immediately.”
“Inspector discretion” over permits
The OIG’s investigation uncovered another serious deficiency in building inspections.
At present, inspectors are required to complete a checklist for all Use & Occupancy permits. But they can use their “discretion” over the handling of so-called minor items, approving the permit and leaving it for later to check on whether repairs were actually made.
A supervisor and several employees at the Office of Permits & Building Inspections told the IG that “inspector discretion” was limited and not applicable to safety items. But the same employees acknowledged that there was no written policy regarding the practice.
Instead, there is an understanding that any follow-up inspections “would be informal and not documented,” Cumming wrote.
The practice is so loosely enforced that sometimes an inspector never returns to the site and simply accepts photos by the owner as proof that a repair was made.
Sometimes an inspector never returns to the site and simply accepts photos by the owner as proof that a repair was made, Cumming found.
The absence of a written policy leaves open the possibility that potentially serious hazards, such as missing handrails or wobbly staircases, are left unaddressed, Cumming wrote.
“DHCD management [should] review and determine if formal guidelines should be created for the discretion used by building inspectors on minor items,” the synopsis report concluded.
Jason Hessler, deputy commissioner for permits and litigation, is now at work on such a memo, which “will address when and where and how an inspector’s discretion can be used,” Kennedy said in reply to the report.
“We will provide a copy of this memo when it is completed,” she promised Cumming.
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