In fiery exchanges with Baltimore City and County’s inspectors general and a fellow councilman Tuesday evening, council Chair Julian Jones defended his proposal for an inspector general oversight board and weakened subpoena power.
A slew of speakers, including a member of the county’s inspector general reform commission, a former county employee and several residents, turned out to the Baltimore County Council work session to oppose amendments requested by Jones, which would require the Office of the Inspector General to disclose investigations of county fraud, waste and abuse to an advisory board.
It would also require the IG to wait 30 days after asking for private records before the office could “request” to subpoena them.
The draft amendment regarding “what the advisory board can do with the inspector general’s report is actually shocking,” city Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming told the council.
“That concept is against everything that an independent office of the inspector general would stand for,” Cumming said. “It is without precedent, and it is without logic.”
The Tuesday debate came after draft amendments requested by Jones leaked last week just before the council was expected to vote on bills meant to strengthen the inspector general’s office. Swift social media backlash prompted the council to vote during the Dec. 4 legislative session to delay voting on the bills.
The draft amendments, which included a politically appointed oversight board, were never introduced publicly. The revised amendments discussed Tuesday proposed a different board makeup — six county residents appointed by certain law schools and other institutions, in addition to the county’s ethics commission director.
But the advisory board’s proposed purpose is the same: to be notified of investigations the inspector general is opening; to receive and recommend changes to draft investigation reports; and to provide an annual job evaluation of the county’s inspector general to the council.
When Councilman Izzy Patoka asked Jones if any of the institutions Jones proposed to appoint members to the advisory board had been contacted about the bill, Jones said he wasn’t sure, but that they would be contacted if the amendment passes.
“So, we have not proactively had a conversation with them about whether they’d be interested,” Patoka said.
“Are you going to vote for the amendment?” Jones asked his fellow Democrat. Patoka said he would not.
“Then don’t worry about it,” Jones responded.
Jones compared giving county Inspector General Kelly Madigan subpoena power to police search and seizures. If police want to seize private property, Jones said, the request must be judicially reviewed.
“The police, the FBI, in order to get access to individuals’ information, must stand in front of a judge and demonstrate probable cause,” Jones said.
The notion that the county IG could issue subpoenas for nongovernmental records without first requesting permission from a judge, Jones said, “flies in face of the Constitution of the United States of America.”
“The amendments I propose strengthen the [inspector general] office and provide some level of checks and balances to the office,” Jones said.
Nearly all speakers disagreed.
“This is unheard of in the industry,” Cumming, vice president of the Association of Inspectors General, told the council.
There are hundreds of inspector general offices across the U.S. — 85% of which do not have oversight boards, Cumming said. Those that do have oversight boards, such as her city office, do not share their investigations with the board, she added.
“Let the people’s watchdog do her job without obstruction and interference,” Cumming said.
Seizing on Cumming’s advisory board — which itself has previously been fraught with political interference — Jones asked Cumming: “Do you consider yourself a very nice inspector general, or competent, and do your job?”
“I do my job,” Cumming responded.
Jones asked: “Does your advisory board have more power than the one proposed?”
“My advisory board has never reviewed any of my investigations. Ever,” Cumming said. “They have no idea what investigations my office is doing; that is a pillar of independence.”
Jones’ amendment to County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s bills give the county’s first inspector general clear subpoena power over noncounty records; make the council justify any decreases in yearly funding for the office; and have voters decide in November 2024 whether to secure the inspector general’s office in the county’s charter.
Jones’ call for an advisory board revives similar checks County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. sought to impose through an oversight board on Madigan’s office in 2021. When he faced public backlash and rebuke from the national inspectors general association, Olszewski created the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability to weigh in. He never proposed the drafted oversight board legislation.
Jones compared his advisory board to “the recommendation that the county executive put forth in 2021 for an oversight board.
“When I think about what is being put forth today,” Jones continued, “this advisory board truly is an advisory board, with very little teeth.”
“The advisory board would look at the report when it’s completed,” and decide whether to recommend changes, he stressed.
The current bills Jones seeks to amend are based on that commission’s recommendations and requested by Olszewski.
The commission, which also recommended Madigan have direct access to public records and subpoena power without a waiting period in February 2023, was decidedly opposed to any IG oversight board.
The fact that Jones has been the subject of two inspectors general probes was not missed by some speakers, although Jones denied wrongdoing in both cases. One report found that Jones included a link to donate to his campaign in his government email address.
Another report found Jones helped pave the way for a commercial alley in Towson to be repaired by the county.
“An oversight committee is a blatant tactic to thwart and stifle the ability to expose wrongdoing by upper-level management, directors, bureau chiefs, departments heads, etc.,” said Whitney Dudley, who Baltimore County hired in 1996, according to salary records.
“An example would be the exposure of the paving of a private alley at the direction of a county administrator,” Dudley, who retired as a management analyst prior to 2023, said.
In her testimony, Madigan, a former deputy state’s prosecutor and the county’s first inspector general, reminded the council of the nearly two years of work by the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability, which County Executive Johnny Olszewski appointed to recommend reforms to her office.
“This is not the first office of the inspector general that was ever created,” Madigan told Jones. There are best practices outlined by the Association of Inspectors General — which issued a news release Monday opposing Jones’ proposed changes.
Citing the amendment proposal, Madigan said that being required to notify an advisory board of opening investigations is “not a best practice.”
“It’s an infringement on independence,” she said.
“We keep hearing about ‘best practices,’” Jones responded. “But those are best practices for IGs. Maybe not so much for the employees.”
Jones pressed Madigan about whether there was any kind of oversight board composition that “would be acceptable” to her.
“The board that you have proposed here is one that is supposed to do my performance review; review policies and procedures [of the IG]; get a notification” of opened investigations, Madigan responded.
“It doesn’t matter what the composition of the board is here. ... Because the practices of the board are not consistent with best practices,” she said.
Madigan also clarified that Jones’ references to law enforcement requests to seize private property are not relevant.
“Those are search warrants,” she said. “We are talking about administrative subpoenas.”
Reading the county charter, Madigan said that certain county bodies are already empowered to issue such demands for information: The council, county administrative officer, and county auditor.
“There’s no requirement that they go before a judicial officer,” she said.
The notion “that an IG is running loose” issuing subpoenas for information — “that is not true.”
Amendments a ‘slap in the face’
Some members of the IG reform commission spoke out against the proposed oversight board and weakened subpoena power.
In a Tuesday statement, Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Joanne Antoine, who was a member of the commission, called the proposals a “slap in the face” that “not only undermine the purpose of the office, but shield the bad actors seeking to use county resources for their own interests.”
During public testimony, another former commission member, Thomas Glancy, said the work by the commission and the IG and county executive’s offices has “come off the rails.”
“Even if the [advisory] board was properly constituted — requiring preapproval of investigation reports by an outside body, as far as I’m aware, is unprecedented,” Glancy said. “It certainly is ill-advised.”
The commission also recommended Madigan be guaranteed access to county records, which the county executive’s office has hampered before. Olszewski’s administration is drafting internal agreements with Madigan’s office on records sharing, which the Association of Inspectors General says is largely unheard of among other local IGs.
Jones likened the IG reform commission to “the fox guarding the hen house.”
Olszewski won’t say if he’ll veto any changes
On Tuesday, the county’s press office said Olszewski is opposed to Jones’ amendments.
But Olszewski demurred when asked whether he would veto amendments to his IG bills. In October, he was quick to veto amendments that he said weakened the council-sponsored plastic bag ban.
Asked Tuesday whether Olszewski would veto any amendments to add an oversight board or limit the subpoena power he’s requesting for the IG, his press office said, “rather than consider hypotheticals on potential proposed amendments, the administration continues to urge the Council to reject the proposed amendments and pass the legislation” as introduced.
The council is expected to vote on the inspector general bills Dec. 18.