Montgomery inspector general's frank talk turns heads

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Montgomery County's inspector general, a soft-spoken former postal inspector, began his presentation to county leaders uneventfully. But it soon became clear that something was bothering Thomas J. Dagley.

To the surprise of some on the County Council, Dagley said he was working in a politically charged climate that was impeding his work. He quickly ticked off his complaints: Unnamed top county officials are getting in his way, holding back critical information he needs to do his job. Officials have gone so far as to interfere with investigations, he has said, including some probes that have embarrassed the administration of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). The pressure has intensified in the past 18 months, about the same time that the inspector general's office began probing the county's police and fire departments as well as a nonprofit group with ties to the county executive.

Details about the alleged interference are expected to be aired at another council session soon. Leggett is planning to meet privately with Dagley before that. In the meantime, the nine council members and Leggett, who are all seeking reelection this year, are trying to assess the fallout from Dagley's claims.

Critics say Dagley has needlessly sullied Montgomery, but others find his claims unsurprising, saying they are typical of tensions between an executive branch and those whose job it is to scrutinize its $4.3 billion budget.

"The inspector general job is very difficult to begin with," said Paul C. Light, a public policy professor at New York University who has studied inspectors general. "You are speaking truth to power, and people don't like that. It's like straddling a barbed-wire fence."

Montgomery is one of the few localities in the country with an inspector general, whose staff of three, including Dagley, reports to the County Council. The operation is smaller than those in governments with similar budgets. Montgomery also has a separate internal auditor.

The inspector general's office was the brainchild of Leggett, who pushed for its creation in 1998 while on the council. Dagley was reappointed last year to a second four-year term.

Until Dagley's provocative comments in mid-March, he and investigators Chris Giusti and Gary Weishaar toiled largely out of public view, writing dry memos about risks the county faces that could lead to waste, fraud and abuse.

But in the past two years, often acting on tips, the inspector general and his staff have bumped into issues that have led to embarrassing findings for Leggett's administration. At times, the administration has gotten out ahead of Dagley with the bad news, trying to show that it is aware of the problems and trying to fix them.

The probes

Among the most controversial investigations by the inspector general are reports on:

-- A police department decision to let a high-ranking fire official leave the scene of a four-car accident with only minimal charges. The fire official was later found to have a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit. He was allowed to resign with his pension intact. Dagley has been unable to get information to finish his probe, now tied up in a lawsuit by two police officers.

-- The county's police disability system, in which the inspector general found that more than 60 percent of police officers who retired between 2004 and 2008 were collecting disability.

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