Mayor Brandon Scott’s chief lawyer, James L. Shea, signaled today that Baltimore’s corruption watchdog, Isabel Mercedes Cumming, will be subject to “full oversight” by a board of political appointees similar to a committee proposed, then withdrawn, by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. following a public outcry.
At the panel’s inaugural meeting today, Shea said the Inspector General Advisory Board will hold multiple work sessions, most likely lasting into the fall, “so we can delve into particulars” of Cumming’s investigations of waste, fraud and corruption in local government.
Defending the board, Shea said, “We are obligated to do this job by the law of the city,” referring to the 2018 charter amendment that was pitched to voters as a way to make the inspector general independent of the mayor’s office.
The amended charter gave Mayor Scott the right to appoint two members of the advisory board (including Shea), City Council President Nick Mosby two members and Comptroller Bill Henry one member. The deans of the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland law schools fill out the panel.
A similarly composed panel, proposed for Baltimore County, was denounced last week by the Association of Inspectors General, an organization of members working in hundreds of IG offices nationwide, for its potential to “gag and shackle” County Inspector General Kelly Madigan.
Both local IGs have reported saving millions of dollars for taxpayers by identifying waste and poor administrative practices – $7,051,000 in the case of Baltimore City last year.
But the offices have also stepped on sensitive political toes and faced harsh blowback by defenders of several targets of their public reports.
In the case of Madigan, criticism came from two Democratic members of the County Council who defended William “Chris” McCollum, a campaign bundler who resigned last week as a senior administrative aide in the Olszewski administration.
In the city, criticism of Cumming has come primarily from allies of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, wife of Council President Nick Mosby, who objected to a report issued by Cumming last February about her extensive out-of-town travel and side business ventures.
After Cumming refused to amend the report to fully exonerate Mosby, as demanded by Mosby’s lawyers, the president of the local NAACP demanded that Mayor Scott convene the IG advisory board to investigate whether Cumming was unfairly targeting Black elected officials and vendors.
A Question of Composition
Today Shea revealed that Cumming had sent a letter to him last Friday noting that “there are members of the [advisory] board who are or whom have been part of OIG investigations.”
The letter did not state whether the members were potential targets, witnesses or accusers in her investigations, which are triggered by complaints by city employees or members of the public.
But the letter stated, “For these same individuals to sit on a board tasked with evaluating the inspector general’s performance at the very least creates an appearance of bias and could hinder the OIG from doing its job with the specter of improper political pressure.”
“For these same individuals to sit on a board tasked with evaluating the inspector general’s performance at the very least creates an appearance of bias” – Isabel Cumming.
Shea expressed irritation at Cumming, who was not invited to the virtual meeting, made available to the public on Webex.
He said he had “thoroughly investigated” Cumming’s concern about potential conflict of interests regarding the two law deans, Ronald Weich and Donald B. Tobin, who, said Shea, are the only members who have “a choice” to participate on the panel.
“Indeed, we had a call with the chair or the director of the city Ethics Board,” Shea reported, “and he fully cleared the participation of both deans, notwithstanding the fact that they themselves could potentially be a target of an investigation by the inspector general.”
Referring to the Association of Inspectors General (AIG) letter, which Cumming had copied to the board, Shea said, “I am confident that we will not be swayed by the implications of the letter that we are somehow unfit. We are not.”
While the AIG said Baltimore County’s proposed board would likely not have “the requisite knowledge, skills, training or experiences” to conduct proper oversight, the letter chiefly focused on the inherit conflict of having political appointees hold sway over those potentially investigating them or their bosses.
“If one of us or one of our agencies does become the subject to an investigation by the IG, we will take that up, individually, on an ad hoc basis and determine the best course of action” – Jim Shea.
Shea scoffed at such criticism, saying, “If, in fact, one of us or one of our agencies does become the subject of an investigation by the IG, we will take that up, individually, on an ad hoc basis and determine the best course of action.”
Left unsaid by Shea is that IG investigations are bound by confidentiality, meaning that Cumming is barred from disclosing the names of targeted employees or agencies to any outside party, including an advisory board.
The charter amendment calls on the advisory board to meet at least once a year “to review the performance of the inspector general.”
The amendment gives no exact duties for the board other than the power – by four affirmative votes – to remove the IG “for misconduct in office, persistent failure to perform the duties of office, or conduct prejudicial to the proper administration of justice.”
The IG has an initial six-year term.
Cumming was appointed in January 2018 after the previous jobholder, Robert H. Pearre Jr., was forced to resign by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Shea is the retired chairman of Venable LLP who, in 2018, picked then-City Councilman Scott as his running mate in an unsuccessful bid to become Maryland governor.
In January, Scott selected Shea as city solicitor, responsible for the city’s law department. He also sits on the Board of Estimates with Scott, Mosby and Henry.
Shea said he plans to conduct a review of Cumming through a “deep dive” of data collection about “what the job is and how the job has been accomplished.”
He further said he will solicit the public through a written comment period “to provide feedback in a fair and evenhanded way.”
The final outcome is expected to be a written report of Cumming’s job performance, which Shea said he hopes to complete in October. The board will then go about reviewing the watchdog’s proposed FY22 budget prior to it being submitted to the Board of Estimates.
The City Council representatives on the board, Eric Costello and Sharon Green Middleton, today praised Shea for his thoroughness.
“I agree completely with everything you outlined. You clearly had goals and objectives for us and for the inspector general, and I think this is a great start,” said Middleton.
She added that the ethics disclosure statements required of her and other board members should allay any concerns by the public about potential conflicts of interest.
UPDATE: In a statement released after today’s meeting, Cumming said her letter to Shea and the advisory board “was an attempt to highlight recent issues involving the independence of the Inspector General’s Office in Baltimore County.
“The make-up of the proposed Baltimore County Board was very similar to the Baltimore City Advisory Board with five elected or appointed members of City government.
“The letter from the president of the Association of Inspectors General addressed the concerns of political oversight and independence. As the Inspector General of Baltimore City, I wanted to make a record that these issues also exist in Baltimore.”
• To reach this reporter: email@example.com