Members of Baltimore County’s commission to reform the inspector general’s office signaled opposition to creating a board to oversee the county’s corruption watchdog Tuesday evening — but one appointee bucked against the office’s unrestricted access to government materials, which most members said they support.
Those issues have been front and center amid clashes between county Inspector General Kelly Madigan and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration, which once considered imposing an oversight board with members appointed by the county executive and County Council chair, and previously ordered Madigan to submit written requests for records to Olszewski’s office in writing.
In their first public discussion about possible recommendations to reform Baltimore County’s inspector general office, members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability said there should be no additional supervision of Madigan’s office.
“We’re not trying to create any more sense of tension [between Madigan’s office and county government] or oversight,” said commission member Jon Laria, who is managing partner of the law firm Ballard Spahr’s Baltimore office.
“We really feel strongly … that you cannot interfere in the day to day operations of the IG,” he said during the virtual meeting.
The county’s only safeguard against an inspector general who may need “to be sanctioned or in some way course corrected” is to remove them from office with cause, Laria said.
It’s “a blunt instrument,” he said, “but if the choice is that and to constantly be criticizing [and] enacting punitive measures [through an oversight board] because you’re not happy with something, I guess I would take it the way it is.”
None of the commission’s seven members advocated in support of an oversight panel, which Olszewski sought to establish through draft County Council legislation last year. The bill was never introduced after public backlash against it. The Association of Inspectors General said the legislation would have severely hampered the IG’s powers.
Subsequently, Olszewski, a Democrat, changed course in October last year by establishing the commission to recommend changes to the policies governing the inspector general, a position created in Olszewski’s first term to root out government waste, fraud and abuse.
Commission chairman William Johnson Jr. said Tuesday he intends to request another extension on the deadline by which to report the recommendations, which were originally due by the end of October. In June, Olszewski revised his executive order to require the commission to issue a final report in January.
Instead of an oversight board, the subcommittee examining the policy change floated an IG advisory panel composed of members of society “without reproach,” such as retired judges, university presidents or clergy members, Laria said.
“There might be a role for a sounding board ... if it would be helpful to the IG,” he said.
Laria sided with fellow commissioners, the retired Baltimore County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Kathleen Cox, Common Cause Maryland Director Joanne Antoine, and attorney Thomas Glancy (who formerly chaired the Public Justice Center’s board of directors) in calling for the county’s inspector general to have broad and easy access to public and protected records, and to strengthen the office’s powers to subpoena information.
“We would support the concept of unrestricted access,” Cox said.
But commission member Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead, commander of the Maryland Army National Guard, protested Madigan having “unfettered” access to government materials, insisting it would circumvent the authority of records custodians, which in Baltimore County are largely department heads who must field Public Information Act requests in addition to managing an agency.
“A custodian means something — that is a really important part of their job, is to be a custodian,” Birckhead said. “So, where is the check and balance with that, if there’s just the ability for the IG to have unfettered access to any record at any time?”
Madigan’s office is already supposed to have unrestricted access to all county records. But in practice, Cox said the office’s records requests to agencies are “funneled” through the Office of Information and Technology.
“It can be perceived as a way to track the investigative actions of the OIG,” Cox said. “There’s no reason they [the OIG] couldn’t independently access the same records.”
Antoine said that Madigan should not face an “unnecessary hurdle” to obtain records for investigations.
“She would still be required to request those records,” Antoine said.
Cox added that the timeline by which the county’s inspector general may issue a subpoena — which the bylaw does not require to be judicially-enforced — should be shortened from 90 to 30 days, in keeping with practices standard in other IG offices.
“You shouldn’t be able to stall an investigation by just dragging your heels,” Cox said, adding, “unrestricted access can eliminate some contention over this issue.”
But Birckhead said she wasn’t “comfortable” with the notion of allowing Madigan to access records without guardrails.
The meeting was held as Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board reviews an Oct. 27 complaint by a constituent who alleges the commission violated the Open Meetings Act by holding closed-door subcommittee meetings and refusing to disclose information about what was discussed or with whom. The subcommittees have met with at least a dozen county employees as well as Council Chair Julian Jones, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers and an unnamed council member.
Commission chairman Johnson said in an email that “county citizens and employees who desire to remain anonymous so as to not have a chilling effect upon our information gathering efforts.”
For the first time since beginning its work in August, the commission allowed speakers to testify publicly. A handful of speakers advocated for more resources for the inspector general and to maintain the office’s independence. Some said that there should be whistleblower protections for employees who report fraud, waste or abuse, that the office be codified in the county charter, have the authority to investigate the school system, and some opposed an oversight board.