A pair of bills before the Baltimore County Council could enshrine the Office of the Inspector General in county law and bolster its subpoena power to access records, but the charter amendments proposed don’t guarantee that power in law.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is requesting to cement the inspector general’s office in the charter change to referendum in the 2024 election.
A separate bill would change county policy prior to voters deciding whether to the office in the charter. That bill would allow the IG to subpoena county records after 30 days if the records aren’t delivered, the county executive’s press office said. It would remove altogether the 90-day waiting period before the office may subpoena non-government records.
Adding the IG to the charter “further protects it from any future efforts to eliminate the office,” Olszewski said in an interview.
The bills were drafted in consultation with county Inspector General Kelly Madigan, Olszewski said. The changes proposed are “lifted directly” from the report put forward in February 2023 by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability.
In some instances, Madigan has been forced to navigate members of the administration to obtain information, and previously directed by Olszewski’s chief of staff to disclose how it pertained to investigations. The Blue Ribbon commission was appointed to recommend reforms to the county’s first inspector general office after disputes between the office and administration officials that have drawn scrutiny.
Rather than bolster the IG’s right to obtain any county materials, codified through legislation Olszewski brought to the council in 2019, his administration is working with Madigan to draft internal agreements surrounding access procedures. Recommended by the commission, the memoranda would formalize “protocols for access, preservation of documents, confidentiality of requests for information, and any limitations on redisclosure of requested materials,” according to the commission report.
But the Association of Inspectors General disagrees with that practice.
Internal memoranda of understanding being drafted between Baltimore County administrators and Madigan regarding how to deliver records needed to investigate government fraud, waste, and abuse could undermine county law that states the IG have “full and unrestricted access” to all its records, according to Will Fletcher, president of the Association of Inspectors General.
“It’s kind of a foreign concept that an MOU would be necessary, rather than having procedures that are made part of the usual engagements made by the county executive or IG,” Fletcher said. “You don’t want any kind of arrangement that waters down the clear authority of the office.”
Fletcher said creating internal agreements between county offices and their corruption watchdog is unusual, and is usually created between “parties that don’t necessarily have any binding engagement through law.”
“Having an MOU implies ... an arm’s-length type of engagement that shouldn’t really describe the relationship between the OIG and the governmental entity it oversees,” Fletcher said.
Olszewski said the office’s right to information isn’t being weakened and will remain in the county code.
He added he doesn’t “believe there’s been any instance of any denial of, or any restrictions, of records” Madigan has requested.
I still want direct access to records. I think the statute is fine for that — that’s really about how you implement it on the back end.— Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan
In an interview, Madigan, who became head of the inspector general’s office in January 2020, said she’s supportive of the proposed charter change and strengthened subpoena power, which would help her more quickly obtain records from government contractors and others.
But, the former deputy state prosecutor added, “I still want direct access to records. I think the statute is fine for that — that’s really about how you implement it on the back end.”
Fletcher distinguished “direct” access as an inspector general’s ability to view databases and parse through records without needing government officials to facilitate them. In his work as inspector general of Chicago Public Schools, for instance, he’s given “read-only” permissions by the schools’ information technology office. Madigan isn’t consistently afforded that kind of access, which Fletcher said is the “gold standard” of policies governing IG offices.
“There’s been a lot of attention on this office and its ability to access the books and records of the county,” Fletcher added. Baltimore County “will ultimately will be held accountable for how well it honors that commitment.”
Olszewski’s administration has funded other changes recommended by the IG already, like providing a budget for outside counsel and increasing the number of investigators and other staff positions in the office.
At Madigan’s request, he removed her as the executive director of the Ethics Commission and put the commission under the purview of the administration’s Office of Law — a move some say is a conflict of interest that could deter employees from filing complaints of potential violations of public ethics laws. Baltimore County is still advertising a contract position for a commission director.
The County Council is scheduled to discuss the IG bills at its Nov. 28 work session and vote Dec. 4.
This article was updated to correct that one of the proposed bills would allow the inspector general to subpoena county records after 30 days if records are not received. The inspector general will not be required to wait at all before the office may subpoena non-government records.