No one interfered in Montgomery Inspector General Dagley's work, Leggett aide says

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's administration is pushing back in its battle with the county's independent watchdog, dismissing the inspector general's claims of political interference as "not grounded in reality" and a violation of county law.

"I have found no evidence that executive staff impeded or restricted your work, put political pressure on your office or undermined your independence in any way," says a 42-page letter that Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Firestine wrote to Thomas Dagley.

Firestine said county law required Dagley to first notify him of any problems with gathering information from the executive branch. Dagley told members of the County Council on March 16 that he was encountering problems that interfered with his investigations. The inspector general is hired by the council and operates independently.

Firestine said the inspector general's office was creating problems of its own and was wasting taxpayers' money by duplicating work of the executive branch, failing to share information with it and sometimes getting ahead of its investigations. That risks "answers to be rehearsed and records to disappear," Firestine said, although he did not offer specifics.

The letter was delivered without fanfare to the council late last week, the latest chapter in a fight that could prove embarrassing during an election year in a county that has a reputation for good government.

Dagley said in a statement Monday that he disagreed with many of Firestine's conclusions. He cited one example of interference by the county attorney's office in which the office shared information about his investigation into an adult education program with the police department, whose staff was under scrutiny in the case.

That, he said, "is contrary to basic principles and standards needed to insure the independence" of his office and its needs to protect confidential sources and confidential information.

Firestine had discussed aspects of this in his memo, saying it was acceptable for attorneys to use some of the names in Dagley's request for information from the information technology office for their own investigation.

"There was no reasonable basis for the [Office of the County Attorney] to conclude that broadening its investigative net would impede you in any manner," he said.

Several recent reports by the inspector general have highlighted problems of oversight by the county government, including some that predate the Leggett administration. Among them: the inspector general's scrutiny of health and human services contracts, including an organization whose accountant is Leggett's campaign treasurer; an investigation of county-funded adult education programs for government employees that allowed police officers to purchase discounted guns for personal use; an investigation by the police and fire departments of a four-car pileup involving a high-ranking fire official later determined to have had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit but who faced minimal charges; and 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.

Leggett has said he supports the inspector general's office and frequently notes that he sponsored the 1997 legislation that led to its creation. Montgomery is one of only a handful of local governments across the nation with an independent watchdog.

Council members are trying to figure out the next step. Firestine wants a public hearing.

"I am hoping that we would have an audit committee discussion with Tom [Dagley]," said council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), who heads the audit committee where Dagley first made his complaints. "Obviously, part of that conversation's foundation will be provided by the memo received from Mr. Firestine," she added.

Meanwhile, the County Council last week restored $86,510 to the inspector general's office, or 54 percent of its operating budget that Leggett had proposed cutting. Overall, the office was cut by about 10.4 percent, more than the 7.7 percent average cut for most of county government.

The council also restored some funds for the county's Ethics Commission, which Leggett had proposed folding into the county attorney's office.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a member of the audit committee, said she was pleased by the council's actions.

"We have solidified our support for an independent Office of Inspector General by making sure that his budget remained intact," she said. "You can't run a government without a watchdog."

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