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IG Cumming Defends Office, Criticizes Makeup Of Oversight Panel

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Charm TV
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Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming speaks during a Wednesday meeting of an OIG advisory board.

Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming defended her office’s work investigating complaints of waste, fraud and abuse and criticized the composition of an advisory board tasked with evaluating her job performance during a meeting Wednesday.

“The concern is not and was never the qualifications of each board member here. Rather it’s a question of politics and influence,” Cumming told the panel in defensive opening remarks. “This board is inherently a political board.”

Cumming has argued that a panel filled with city employees and elected officials subject to her investigations has an inherent conflict of interest. Some past investigations have involved panel members, according to the IG. She has told WYPR that she cannot specify which panel members nor say whether they were the primary focus of investigations or involved in them as sources.

Under the law that created the panel, the mayor, city comptroller and City Council president or their designees are to be members. 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 State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, designated two of his council allies, Councilman Eric Costello and Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton. City Solicitor Jim Shea — a role appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council — chairs the board.

Ronald Weich and Donald B. Tobin, the deans of the law schools at the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland, respectively, also serve on the panel.

Solicitor Shea, who is one of a small number of city employees who receive the OIG’s complete, unredacted reports, spent nearly an hour grilling Cumming and her employees about the office’s specific policies and procedures.

Cumming directed him to “92 pages worth of them” — a confidential Green Book from the Associations of Inspectors General, a nonpartisan group of U.S. IGs, that detail how to conduct interviews, store evidence and coordinate with city agencies.

He also repeatedly asked how the office decides what tips to investigate and whether they follow a specific procedural process for investigating each tip: “When you have completed the preliminary assessment and you've decided to do an investigation, do you have a plan of investigation for each complaint that you're pursuing?”

Deputy Inspector General of Investigations Michelle Phillips answered that the office always develops investigative plans but that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. "We allow the evidence to guide us within that investigation," she said.

Core practices include determining whether a tip comes under the purview of the office and whether the action alleged constitutes waste, fraud or abuse before diving into investigative work, she said.

Tobin of UMD dug further into how the office proceeds with unfounded complaints.

“What happens when you receive a claim that’s either intended to be vindictive or is from a person who... doesn’t have the cognitive reality of the world,” the dean asked.

“We have received complaints of that nature,” Phillips replied. “Somebody may say 'The mayor put a spaceship on top of my house. They’re spying on me.' You got to take a look at that. Clearly, it’s not true. We have trained hotline special agents to communicate with these individuals. We understand their concerns, but this is all out of purview. We do suggest outside agencies, like the department of health.”

Shea also asked Cumming about her annual salary, which rose from $151,600 to $183,800 earlier this year. She said the raise came about after she received a letter in September of last year from then-Mayor Jack Young’s chief of staff Kim Morton.

“The letter said, ‘After an annual assessment of agency directors, it was discovered that your classification-based salary was not in alignment with your peers. This reclassification is granted in accordance with the provision of AM 205-20 for internal alignment with your reclassification and represented in the increase in your base salary,’ ” she said, adding that she alerted then -City Solicitor Dana Moore of the increase “because I didn't have [an advisory] board and I didn't want any questions about it.”

Michael Huber, Scott’s chief of staff, thanked Cumming for enduring “painful” questions and said the mayor supports having a robust OIG before delivering a line of questioning about her decision to support the 2018 charter amendment that moved the OIG out of the purview of the mayor and established the membership of the advisory board.

Cumming said she still thoroughly supports the OIG’s independence but does not feel similarly about the board.

“As time has gone on, I realized that compared to other Inspector General's offices, it is not the best practice,” she said of the board’s composition. “If you want me to say that I was wrong for supporting it, I don't know if I was, because it did get [the office] out from the mayor.”

Though the charter amendment was passed in 2018, the panel was not assembled until this year, after Cumming was criticized by allies of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, including the city chapter of the NAACP, for the investigation into her travel, which she originally requested.

The findings of that investigation faulted Mosby for failing to ask city spending officials for permission to go on trips paid by third parties, but Solicitor Shea noted that city travel policies were ambiguous. The spending board, chaired by Council President Mosby, passed in June new policies requiring elected officials to seek approval for all third-party travel expenses of $100 or more.

Huber asked Cumming whether racial “equity considerations factor into the decision to move through to an investigation or in the prioritization of investigations.”

No, she said.

Though the IG spent most of her time answering logistical questions about her office, she used the meeting to hammer home her core conflicts of interest concerns. She repeatedly said that city employees should not have to worry whether potential complaints concerning members of the board will be investigated without prejudice.

“If an inspector general were to be removed by this board, political motives may rightfully be suspected,” Cumming said. “The implications of elected officials choosing their own watch dog are at stake.”

The meeting also provided a small glimpse into the OIG’s investigation process. Councilman Costello asked about the timeline of publishing the results of investigations; Cumming said that after a 50-page report is finalized internally, the city agency at the heart of the investigation receives the report and is given three to four weeks to comment on it. Once an agency provides a comment, the OIG creates and publishes a brief public synopsis of the investigation.

Cumming has served as IG since January 2018. In April, she requested a peer review from the Association of Inspectors General, which she has said will not be privy to conflicts of interest and will measure operational efficiency and adherence to established quality standards.

She told the panel the review will commence next summer. Shea has said that he’ll aim to publish the results of Cumming’s review by October and that Cumming will be graded by the same performance evaluation rubric used for other city employees.

“My goal is to provide thoughtful, reflective, helpful feedback,” he said.

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.