Montgomery inspector general could set tone with first set of reports

December 8, 2011

Edward Blansitt isn’t shy about taking on people in high places.

As deputy inspector general at the Commerce Department, he lodged a complaint against his own boss, a presidential appointee, who was forced to resign.

Now he is probing government waste and malfeasance in one Washington’s wealthiest suburbs.

This year, Blansitt was appointed Montgomery County’s inspector general, inheriting a job that has generated more than a little friction with officials in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction.

The third person to hold the job in the 14 years it has existed, Blansitt succeeded J. Thomas Dagley, who left the job in April midway through his second term, after six years of service, amid acrimonious relations with county leaders.


Edward Blansitt was appointed Montgomery County’s inspector general. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

County officials say they hope Blansitt, who is 62 and could be reappointed after he finishes out Dagley’s term, will strike a different tone from that of his predecessors.

Whether Blansitt will could become clearer over the next few months as he releases his first batch of public reports. In his first report last week, his office concluded that Montgomery needs better oversight of county vehicles.

Tensions between inspectors general and county officials have flared periodically. The first inspector general, Norman D. Butts, resigned after he clashed with the county executive and his office survived a County Council member’s threats to abolish it. And Dagley penned an editorial in September in which he chided top Montgomery officials, saying they “have grown too accustomed to operating behind closed doors and avoiding the tough questions.”

Blansitt says he hopes not to be a sensational or adversarial presence in the county. But he knows criticism is inevitable, and he is prepared for it. “I think they wanted someone with a thick skin,” he said.

Montgomery is one of only a handful of local governments across the nation with an independent watchdog. The District has one, Charles J. Willoughby, who has been criticized for his low profile while other investigative agencies look into possible improprieties by Vincent C. Gray’s (D) mayoral campaign and administration. Prince George’s County has been considering the creation of an inspector general position to help curb corruption in a government notorious for it.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has said he supports the position and frequently notes that he sponsored the 1997 legislation creating it. But the relationship between Leggett and the county’s inspectors general hasn’t always been amicable.

In 2007, Leggett quietly proposed that the inspector general’s office be transferred to the executive branch from the legislative branch. Dagley said that would threaten the office’s independence, and Leggett abandoned the idea. Last year, Dagley told council members that he had encountered political interference during his investigations — an assertion that the county’s chief administrative officer, Timothy Firestine, said was “not grounded in reality.”

Blansitt became inspector general after a long career in federal government that began with a job as a statistical assistant at the Bureau of Mines. He later worked at the National Science Foundation and the Commerce Department. (Through his work, he has visited presidential libraries and the South Pole.)

In 2004, Blansitt received Commerce’s highest honor, the Gold Medal. He considered retiring the next year but decided to stay.

That’s when the trouble started.

Blansitt worked for Johnny E. Frazier, who had been the department’s top watchdog since 1999. Although he was Frazier’s deputy, Blansitt approved Frazier’s travel expenses. In 2006, Blansitt was suspicious of a week-long trip Frazier took to New York and Boston and asked the inspector general to justify it.

Frazier did not provide a reason that satisfied Blansitt, according to federal documents detailing the investigation, so Blansitt told his boss in September 2006 that he had filed a complaint with what was then called the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency.

Frazier soon demoted Blansitt and Allison C. Lerner, Frazier’s counsel at the time, according to the federal documents. Frazier assumed that Blansitt had sought Lerner’s advice before filing the complaint, according to the documents. Blansitt said he did seek legal advice, but not from Lerner.

The Office of Special Counsel became involved and investigated the possible violation of federal whistleblower protection laws. The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency also investigated Frazier.

During the inquiries, “the office suffered so much turmoil,” Blansitt said. Many staff members were interviewed by investigators. According to the federal documents, office mates aimed allegations at Lerner and Blansitt in those interviews, saying their close relationship was detrimental to the office.

Blansitt also was described as a “nasty” co-worker, and in a June 2007 letter sent to the deputy secretary of commerce and provided to The Washington Post by Frazier, eight senior officials in the inspector general’s office said Blansitt “alienated and demoralized” employees.

Blansitt doesn’t dispute that he was a tough boss. “I would say ‘demanding’ is a fair word,” he said, adding that he was not abusive.

Frazier resigned in 2007 in the face of the investigations. Blansitt and Lerner were reappointed to their jobs, but Blansitt retired from his federal post two years later. He taught accounting at a community college.

Lerner, meanwhile, became chairman of a Montgomery panel that would vet inspector general candidates. Lerner told Blansitt about the position and later recused herself when he was interviewed.

On April 26, the Montgomery County Council appointed Blansitt as inspector general, choosing him from among 43 applicants. He makes $140,000 and leads an office with six employees and a budget of more than $650,000. He said he hopes to be reappointed after the partial term ends.

In an interview, Frazier said Blansitt finally had what he wanted. “Ed wanted to be an IG more than anything else,” said Frazier, who lives in Potomac and volunteers in the District. “I am very glad that he has this job now, because he is the boss. He is the number one. I think he wanted my job.”

Asked to respond, Blansitt said, “There’s nothing to be gained from rehashing anything else.”

Lerner, inspector general at the National Science Foundation, said the Frazier episode was a formative experience for her and for Blansitt. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said, “and I think that it did for both of us.”

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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