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City Inspector General Says Investigations Have Involved Members Of Her Oversight Panel

Members of the Office of the Inspector General oversight board meet on Tuesday.
Members of the Office of the Inspector General oversight board meet on Tuesday.

A Baltimore City panel met Tuesday morning to discuss a performance evaluation of Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming, whose office investigates complaints of waste, fraud and abuse — including investigations involving panel members, according to the IG.

Cumming delivered a letter obtained by WYPR that warned of potential conflicts of interest to the advisory board last Friday, writing that “there are members of the Board who are or have been part of OIG investigations.”

The letter did not specify whom, nor whether panel members were the primary focus of investigations or involved in them as sources. In an interview, Cumming said she could not confirm or deny any subjects.

“I don't want people to worry that if they have a concern against someone who is appointed on my board or is a member of my board, that they can't come to my office,” she told WYPR. “The politics take away the independence.”

City Solicitor Jim Shea, who chairs the board, acknowledged this tension at the meeting but did not put forth a specific plan for dealing with conflicts of interest, saying that the panel will deal with investigations of its members on an ad hoc basis.

“It would depend on what's being investigated and why,” he said. “I'm committed, and I'm sure you all are, to take up any either real conflict or appearance of conflict that arises as we proceed with this evaluation.”

The annual review by an oversight panel is required by the same 2018 charter amendment that made the OIG independent from the mayor’s office, but Tuesday’s meeting was the first ever. Shea announced the meeting last month, after Cumming received criticism from allies of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, following an investigation into her travel.

The meeting was largely organizational; Shea said he wants the group to meet several times before they issue a formal review by September or October.

“We're supposed to do a performance review and the implication is that we're to do that annually. So we've got some time,” he said. “But the issues that have come to the Inspector General, I think, need to have the air cleared... a prolonged period of evaluation, I don't think, will help anybody.”

By the 2018 charter amendment, the following elected officials must serve on the board or designate appointees: Mayor Brandon Scott designated his chief of staff, Michael Huber; Comptroller Bill Henry designated Deputy Comptroller Erika McClammy; City Council President Nick Mosby, who is married to the State’s Attorney, designated two of his council allies, Councilman Eric Costello and Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton. As City Solicitor — a role appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council — Shea chairs the board.

City charter also allows the mayor and council president to appoint two more seats: the deans of the law schools at the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore. Mayor Scott and City Council President Mosby agreed to appoint Ronald Weich of UB and Donald B. Tobin of UMD.

Cumming became IG in January 2018 and said she “100% lobbied” for the charter amendment that moved her office out of the mayor’s purview and required the annual review by an oversight committee.

“I will admit that that part of the law, I should have realized that that was going to be an issue,” she said, emphasizing that she believes an oversight board is necessary, so long as there are mechanisms in place to prevent conflicts of interest.

Her letter to the advisory board contained a copy of an open letter written by the Association of Inspectors General that criticized proposed changes in Baltimore County, where Inspector General Kelly Madigan says her office is at risk of losing its independence. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. pushed a scuttled bill to restrict the office’s access to protected records after some County Council members called her “a bully.”

The letter said Olszewski’s efforts would “effectively gag and shackle the Inspector General from conducting independent investigations for the ultimate benefit of the citizens of Baltimore County.”

Cumming, who is a member of the association but was not involved with the letter, said the document made her realize that it was “definitely not a best practice” to comprise an oversight board of elected officials and politically appointed persons.

“Independence is the most important pillar of an inspector general's office,” she said.

Cumming’s February report into Mosby, which was requested by the State's Attorney herself, found she spent 144 days away from the city in 2018 and 2019. It faulted Mosby for not requesting approval from the city’s spending panel for more than a dozen trips that were funded by nonprofits; Mosby’s attorneys argued that she was not obligated to request approval because the trips were not paid for by taxpayers.

Solicitor Shea reviewed the investigation and found there was “no clear answer” in whether or not Mosby violated city policy, ultimately finding the Democrat was not required to seek approval because the city’s travel policies are unclear. Mayor Scott convened a city work group to recommend specific policies; last month, the Board of Estimates adopted those recommendations, which call for elected officials to seek the spending board’s approval for travel expenses of $100 or more, including those paid for by third parties.

In the wake of the report, the IG was castigated by Baltimore’s NAACP chapter, whose members said Cumming and her staff unfairly target Black officials and some Black-owned vendors.

“An OIG that operates without proper oversight, oversight that is required by law, is an OIG that risks betraying public trust and losing legitimacy,” Rev. Kobi Little wrote in a March letter. “The citizens of Baltimore deserve an OIG that is above the fray - impartial, competent, accountable and dispassionate in the presentation of its findings. The failure of the oversight board to convene denies the citizens of Baltimore the independent, yet accountable, OIG that we voted for in 2018.”

Cumming has flatly rejected the grievances.

“My investigations speak for themselves,” she said. “We have an investigative principle that says we go wherever and we look wherever the evidence leads and we pursue the truth with an objective mind, without prejudice and regardless of politics.”

Cumming’s six-year term ends in late 2023.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.