Baltimore County’s government watchdog office to expand amid council scrutiny
Baltimore County’s office of inspector general, which roots out fraud, waste and abuse in county government, is about to double in size. At the same time, it is being scrutinized by a commission tasked to recommend changes to how the office operates. What’s at stake is whether the county’s watchdog will be leashed.
Inspector General Kelly Madigan’s office is located down several stairwells then through a few locked doors traversing an underground tunnel that runs from the historic courthouse in Towson. Madigan pointed down one corridor during a recent tour.
“This way would take you all the way to circuit court,” she said.
Madigan said she wanted an office that was private, centrally located, and hard to find. Check, check and check.
“It’s a small space,” she said. “We have room to grow.”
Madigan is going to need it because she is hiring three new people, including two investigators, which will increase the size of her office to six.
“I would love to have all three of them in place by September 1, maybe that is wishful thinking,” she said.
As the capacity of the inspector general’s office grows, county officials could find themselves under even greater scrutiny. They have already at times bristled over Madigan’s investigations. The office fielded 155 complaints, and opened 15 investigations, the majority of which were published publicly. It addressed nearly 200 ethics inquiries, processed more than 300 lobbying compliance records and 500 financial disclosure statements in the past year.
In recent months her office discovered the county inadvertently missed giving 838 of its employees a promised 2% raise. In response, County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers questioned whether Madigan had the authority to look into what was an operational snafu. Madigan countered that part of her job is to provide accountability and oversight of county government.
The end result is that the employees are going to get their raise.
“I think absent the tone of the response from the administration, that that is a success for Baltimore County government,” Madigan said. “That is a success for the office of the inspector general.”
WYPR obtained emails between Madigan and County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s chief of staff Patrick Murray that reveal an attempt in April of 2021 to restrict Madigan’s access to records. Olszewski, who created the inspector general position, said differences of opinions are part of the process.
“I am committed to transparency,” Olszewski said. “I am committed to accountability. It’s why we introduced and created the office in the first place. It’s why I have grown the office literally every year I’ve been in office.”
In the past year, Madigan pointed out an enforcement flaw in the county charter. Councilwoman Cathy Bevins violated the charter when she moved out of her council district but was not forced to give up her office. Bevins decided not to run for another term. Madigan flagged that County Council Chairman Julian Jones violated the county’s electronic communications policy when he put a donate button on an email that used a county email address. Jones said it was an honest mistake and Madigan’s investigation went too far.
“It didn’t call for her to review all of my emails for over a year,” Jones said. “It didn’t call for her to go through months of investigations. All it meant was a phone call. ‘Hey did you know this?’ ‘Hey I didn’t know that, I’ll take care of it right away.’”
It was those two council members, Bevins and Jones, who last year called for an oversight board for the inspector general.
“Everyone should be accountable to someone,” Jones said. “I just think that when you have people, anyone, that is not accountable to someone else, you have the ingredients for abuse.”
Localities differ on whether an oversight board is needed. In Baltimore City the inspector general has one. City residents in November will decide whether to approve a charter amendment that would remove elected officials from the board. Montgomery County’s inspector general, Megan Limarzi, does not have an oversight board, but she said her office remains accountable and responsible to the taxpayers.
“We put forth information that is encouraging the transparency and the accountability of county government,” Limarzi said.
In July 2021, Olszewski proposed an oversight board for the inspector general. That idea was rejected by both Madigan and council members because it would have been packed with political appointees. Olszewski then named a blue ribbon commission to examine the county’s ethics laws and the office of inspector general. It began meeting in June and is expected to issue a final report in January.
Madigan recently appeared before the commission and mostly praised the current statute that set up the office before she took it over in January 2020. Under the statute, there is no oversight board. The inspector general also has unfettered access to county records and subpoena power. The inspector general needs to be independent, as disentangled as possible from county officials, the very people the office may investigate, she said. Madigan told the commission one way the statute falls short of that is that she has to use the county’s office of law for legal counsel.
“While they are the lawyer to all of Baltimore County, the county attorney serves at the pleasure of the county executive,” Madigan said. “And there have been scenarios where I have disagreed with the administration and the office of law has been representing the administration.”
Another issue is that every year at budget time, Madigan has to go hat in hand to the council and the county executive, again the very people she may need to investigate, to fund her office. She told the commission it doesn’t have to be like that.
Madigan said, “It’s not unusual that offices of inspectors general’s budgets have a floor and a ceiling, and will also have language that says something like at least 1% of the overall budget will be dedicated to the office.”
Madigan calculated that her office costs each county resident 42 cents a year for a budget of $353,994. She shied away from estimating how much her office has saved the county in uncovering waste and fraud. Instead, she said there is value in having an ethical government. She pointed to her report in June that showed prominent developer David Cordish received preferential treatment from the county for a proposed tennis facility on his property.
“There’s no financial aspect to that report,” Madigan said. “But that report certainly sheds light.”
Commission member Jon Laria, an attorney, agreed, saying it would be a slippery slope to incentivise the inspector general’s investigations.
“In an ideal world, if you can imagine an ideal world like this it would be, we don’t care if you succeed or fail as the IG, just do your job and we’ll give you the money.”
Montgomery County has had an inspector general’s office since 1997. Inspector General Limarzi said Madigan is in a difficult position, creating an office from scratch while learning how to work with county officials who are not used to having someone looking over their shoulders.
“Oversight is hard,” Limarzi said. “It is a big challenge. It is never easy for anyone to be given any type of criticism usually. But I think when everyone sort of steps back and sees the role that an inspector general’s office can provide, it really can benefit everyone.”
Olszewski said, “My goal through all of this is to make sure that it’s both a best in class office, one that’s independent, one that is effective, one that is accountable, but also one that’s sustained far beyond this administration.”
Besides being inspector general, Madigan also tracks lobbyists and handles ethics training for the county’s 8,700 employees. In the coming year she expects to create an online lobbying program and roll out an internal case management system.
“The purpose of our office is to try to make Baltimore County better, Madigan said. “What is it worth for an ethical government?”