Honestly, how hard is it for Baltimore County executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. to get it right when it comes to assuring access to local government records by the county’s watchdog against fraud, waste and abuse – Inspector General Kelly Madigan?
He has generated fresh controversy by proposing legislation on the structure and authority of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) that does not enshrine its most important power in the county charter: Direct and unfettered access to county records.
Bill 83-23 and companion 84-23 will come before the County Council at a work session tomorrow.
The KISS (Keep It Simple) principle should be applied to this matter because there is language already in the charter applicable to the county auditor that serves as obvious guidance for the proposed legislation.
The OIG was added to county government to serve as an internal “watchdog” agency, complementing the existing role of the county auditor in investigating various types of fraud, waste and abuse within county government.
Section 311 of the county charter provides as follows:
“All records and files pertaining to the receipt and expenditure of county funds by all officers, agents and employees of the county, and all records and files pertaining to management and performance of the functions and activities of any office, department, or agency funded in whole or in part by county funds, and all offices, departments, institutions, boards, commissions, and other agencies thereof shall at all times be open to the inspection of the county auditor (italics added).”
The provision recognizes that unimpeded access to records by the county auditor is absolutely essential.
After all, the best way to hamstring an investigation is to force the investigators to waste both time and effort by making it jump through as many hoops as possible to gain access to needed information.
The Back Story
So why didn’t the county executive simply recommend that a parallel provision applicable to the inspector general be added to the charter rather than rely on existing language in the county code?
The answer, based on past events, is that his administration still struggles to accept the concepts of transparency and accountability in government.
In an email dated April 8, 2021, Olszewski’s former chief of staff, Patrick H. Murray, instructed Madigan that she had to ask the administration for records in writing. He told her to explain why she needed the information, and “how the request is necessary and related to the work of the Office of Inspector General.”
A county government that still struggles with the concepts of transparency and accountability.
The email followed on the heels of two reports by Madigan highly critical of county employee and Olszewski fundraiser Chris McCollum, who later pleaded guilty to embezzling money as campaign treasurer for ex-County Executive Jim Smith and 6th District Councilwoman Cathy Bevins. (McCollum is now serving a six-month sentence in the county detention center.)
Madigan pushed back on the attempt to curtail her access to records, and Olszewski responded with a draft bill that would have destroyed the efficacy of her office.
A furious public backlash prompted him to refrain from introducing the bill.
Instead, he formed a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics and Accountability” to recommend possible legislation. The commission recommended that the OIG have “direct access to government records/materials whenever possible.”
The antipathy of the Olszewski administration toward access by the OIG – and the media – to public records was not a one-off. Fast forward to June 2022.
Targeting a Whistleblower
On June 9, 2022, The Brew reported that a fundraiser held by Jack Haden, prospective owner of what would be the county’s first privately-owned waste transfer station, collected $35,900 for Olszewski’s campaign treasury.
The article further noted that Olszewski was seeking County Council approval of the transfer station despite internal reports estimating that the county would lose $1.2 million in annual revenues and that the county already had plenty of existing transfer capacity, making the new transfer station redundant.
Following a report about an OIG investigation, Baltimore County’s former police chief was asked to look into the alleged whistleblower.
On June 14, the Baltimore Sun reported that Madigan had opened an investigation into a complaint that the fundraiser had influenced Olszewski’s decision.
The next day, according to a police report produced in response to a PIA request, Patrick Murray – the same aide who earlier tried to thwart Madigan’s access to county records – asked former County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt to “open an investigation into [a former county employee’s] unauthorized entrance into a County facility and his departure from that facility with County property.”
Hyatt did so, and a detective was assigned, who interviewed multiple county employees and was given copious information by Acting Public Works Director D’Andrea Walker and Acting Deputy Director Anthony Russell about a “possible burglary” and “internal trespassing.”
It became clear during the course of the investigation that administration officials suspected that the ex-employee in question was the “whistleblower” behind the transfer station complaint, and that the property allegedly taken was records relevant to the complaint.
The investigation also established that the person did have permission to enter the building, and no property was missing.
The investigation was dropped on the advice of a senior assistant state’s attorney, who stated that the whistleblower’s “actions did not meet any criminal elements.”
Fix this Flawed Bill
That was good advice and avoided implicating further the police department in the potential harassment of a whistleblower.
Also dropped like a hot potato was Olszewski’s proposal for approval of Jack Haden’s transfer station.
On July 5, 2022, the Council tabled the measure without opposition from the administration. The proposal has not been heard from since.
I spent 31 years in the Anne Arundel County Office of Law and five years before that as an Assistant State’s Attorney. I saw elected officials upset about leaked information, but never anything as heavy handed as a police investigation of a person accused of unauthorized entrance into a county building to retrieve copies of public records.
I’m sure that the message about the Olszewski administration’s feelings toward whistleblowers was not lost on employees who learned of the investigation.
Olszewski’s attitude toward transparency and accountability, including complaints to the OIG and access to public records by the OIG, reflects a strong preference that information that casts his administration in a negative light be suppressed.
Either he – or in the absence of his leadership, the County Council – should take a step in the right direction by insisting that the OIG’s direct and unfettered access to county records be enshrined in the county charter where it belongs.
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. To reach him: email@example.com and Twitter @dplymyer.