Rushern Baker’s ethics plan gets support from County Council

September 11, 2012

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker, who campaigned on a platform to clean up government, won preliminary County Council support Tuesday to expand the county ethics office and broaden its powers.

“The primary focus is to identify fraud . . . and illegal actions in the county government,” Bradley W. Frome, a top Baker aide, told the council.

Baker (D) unveiled the measure in July, nearly two years after a widespread corruption scandal involving then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, County Council member Leslie Johnson (D).

Baker’s proposal would broaden the ethics office’s responsibilities, beef up its staff and create a tip line for whistleblowers. But it does not include an independent inspector general, as a county panel headed by former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) had urged. During his 2010 campaign for county executive, Baker promised to set up an inspector general’s office.

The expanded ethics office, with a budget of about $375,000, would for the first time have a full-time executive director and two investigators to probe criminal acts in the county government. The office would also be responsible for ensuring that the county’s 6,000 employees are trained in ethical practices. The council earlier approved a Baker proposal for an additional $140,000 for the state’s attorney’s office to prosecute cases referred by the ethics office.

The council on Tuesday endorsed several elements of Baker’s proposal, which members are expected to approve this fall. The council toughened the measure by requiring a two-thirds council vote to fire an ethics office executive director. Baker had proposed a simple majority vote.

Whether the new ethics office would essentially function as an independent inspector general is unclear. An inspector general ordinarily is responsible for seeking out waste, fraud and abuse, and proposing ways to improve government procedures. But Baker’s legislation divides those responsibilities between the executive branch and the legislative branch. The council has its own audits and investigations office that searches for waste and audits the government with a $2 million annual budget and a staff of about 20. That is untouched by Baker’s plan.

Baker already created a CountyStat office with a budget of about $300,000; it explores ways to make government more efficient and customer-friendly.

While Baker and the council are focused on strengthening government oversight, the fallout from the Johnson corruption scandal has not abated. U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte is scheduled to preside over the sentencing this week of a former county police officer implicated in a scheme to illicitly sell untaxed alcohol and cigarettes. And the FBI and federal prosecutors have said that their investigations in Prince George’s are continuing.

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