The hoopla over Baltimore’s Superbowl success in New Orleans masks the city’s loss in another area – a brave government watchdog, David N. McClintock, is leaving his post as Inspector General for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.
McClintock gets none of the press of, say, Joe Flacco, but his small agency (annual budget: $600,000) has had an important impact on City Hall.
In his three years as Inspector General, the ex-Baltimore cop with a University of Maryland law degree and 25 years of experience in criminal investigations has exposed fraud and waste in many areas.
Most recently, his office reported that the city had wasted nearly $1 million on purchasing fuel at private gas stations since 1999.
He also deftly stepped through the political minefield of “phonegate” – the battle over a new municipal Internet phone system. His balanced report noted that the infighting between Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Comptroller Joan Pratt had cost the city at least $673,000 without producing any usable system.
Question of Independence
So why is the Maryland native moving his family to the suburbs of New Orleans to become Jefferson Parish’s inspector general? Mostly, he says, because Jefferson Parish has established an independent inspector general’s office.
“We’ve struggled with a lot of the problems that Jefferson Parish eliminated in creating the office,” McClintock told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Chief among them was establishing the office in the parish charter, giving it a dedicated revenue source and setting up clear lines of authority.
In Baltimore, the Office of the Inspector General was created on July 27, 2005 by an executive order by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley.
O’Malley said his goal was to “prevent fraud, waste and abuse in government” by establishing an office within the law department that could “investigate vigorously and speak candidly without fear of retribution.”
But the mandate contained a fatal flaw, according to McClintock. It allowed the mayor to dismiss the person holding the job “at will” at any time for any reason – or no reason at all. The order further made the agency’s budget dependent on annual budget appropriations approved by the mayor and fellow politicians.
Before McClintock’s 2010 appointment by Rawlings-Blake, the city had gone through two IGs with miserable records and one interim appointment. As Rawlings-Blake rightly pointed out last week, “David McClintock. . . turned a dysfunctional office into a real asset for city government.”
While returning the compliment – McClintock says Rawlings-Blake not only has increased the OIG’s budget but backed new investigative methods such as data mining of city records – McClintock nevertheless pointed to the office’s structural weaknesses in a series of e-mail exchanges with The Brew.
Risk of Termination
“The manner in which the Inspector General is retained has a direct impact on the ability to both recruit qualified leadership and also to provide some level of protection from political influence,” McClintock wrote.
“An IG who is retained as an at-will employee can be terminated for any reason at any time. An at-will IG is more at risk to being fired without cause which, while legal, could be used to let go an IG for engaging in sensitive areas of investigation. This dynamic does not fully support OIG independence.”
There are several ways to reduce the potential of political influence on the position, McClintock noted.
“An IG may be provided with an employment contract that provides protections against termination without cause and establishes a specific term of employment.” Yet another option – appointing an IG for a specific term with provisions setting forth terms of separation.
McClintock had no contract with the city of Baltimore. His agreement with Jefferson Parish prohibits termination without cause and covers an initial five-year term of office.
A Preemptive Opinion
It is unclear whether Mayor Rawlings-Blake will take the opportunity of McClintock’s departure to strengthen the institutional foundations of the office. So far, she has only announced that a nationwide search for a new IG will be led by City Solicitor George Nilson.
This raises another question of independence.
Under the original establishment of the office, the City Solicitor – who serves at the mayor’s pleasure – is responsible for overseeing the OIG, but not interfering with its investigations.
Nilson arguably interfered with the OIG’s independence last June when he preemptively produced an opinion arguing that the mayor’s handling of “phonegate” contracts were within the law and posed no conflicts of interest.
That report placed McClintock in an awkward position when Comptroller Pratt demanded that the Inspector General review the same contracts.
That the OIG’s subsequent investigation was thoroughly done came despite protestations by Nilson and mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty that there were no grounds to investigate the contracts.
Regardless of his best intentions, giving Nilson, the mayor’s lawyer, the power to oversee recruitment of a new IG may not be the best approach to find another David McClintock.
Or to create a watchdog so urgently needed in a government that has not audited some city agencies for 25 years.