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Prince George's considers establishing watchdog office

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 6:43 PM

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has taken the first steps toward establishing an inspector general's office, a move that would help satisfy his campaign promise to stamp out corruption and end backroom deals in the county.

The proposal comes after years of swirling allegations of corruption and complaints about lack of transparency in Prince George's government. And while it's unclear how the county would pay for the office, attention to such efforts was renewed by the Nov. 12 arrests of former county executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, new council member Leslie Johnson, both Democrats. The Johnsons are charged with tampering with evidence and destruction of evidence in an ongoing federal corruption probe.

Baker last week asked two highly regarded attorneys - former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), now dean of Howard University Law School, and retired Prince George's Circuit Court judge William D. Missouri - to lead a task force examining government procedures, the county's ethics board and the prospect of a permanent inspector general's office.

If Prince George's establishes the office, it would become one of only a few local governments in the nation to have its own internal watchdog agency.

Determining the basics

A key question for the task force, whose other members have not been named, will be figuring out how a county watchdog would function.

"What do you want this person to do, who does the office report to, and what kind of authority do you want the office to have?" said Fred Palm, executive director of the Association of Inspectors General.

Missouri, who is scheduled to meet with Baker and Schmoke on Monday to iron out the details of how the task force will operate, said he welcomes the idea of setting up an inspector general's office. County residents need assurances "that there is no favoritism and that everything the government handles is above board," he said.

"Right now, citizens are really disappointed in how our government has been allowed to move away from what it should be, that there is clarity and transparency," he said.

Schmoke declined comment for this article.

In a statement announcing the task force, Baker said that it was "imperative that Prince George's County immediately reviews its internal procedures, and that we do so with the right model from the start."

He said he picked the task force leaders for their "integrity and character."

Missouri said an inspector general could have a higher profile than the Office of Audits and Investigations, which reports to the County Council. An inspector general could give residents a higher-visibility place to report problems in county government, he said.

David Van Dyke, head of the Office of Audits and Investigations, said he would welcome an inspector general's office. "It would enhance the whole effort," he said.

In the Washington area, the District government and Montgomery County have inspectors general.

While Montgomery proudly touts the existence of the office, it is chronically understaffed and for years has been a source of controversy and a target of turf battles.

The Montgomery inspector general is appointed by and reports to the County Council. In the District, the inspector general is nominated by the mayor and approved by the D.C. Council, but the office submits its budget to Congress.

Clashes in Montgomery

While Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) led the efforts to create the office in 1997 when he was a member of the County Council, he has advised Baker to consider doing it differently and weigh making the Prince George's inspector general's office part of the executive branch.

Top officials in the administrations of both former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Leggett have complained about some of the inspectors general's embarrassing findings about the inner workings of government.

Earlier this month, in his annual report to the council, Montgomery Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley renewed concerns he aired to the council earlier this year about actions by some county officials that he said interfered with his work. He also said his office had found $1 million in questionable vendor and employee costs linked to a county tuition assistance program; helped spur a county decision not to renew at least $350,000 in contracts and grants with a social services vendor because of questionable spending practices; and initiated reviews of more than $4.5 million in questionable expenditures elsewhere in county government.

The Leggett administration has disputed many of the inspector general's claims - including that officials were hinderingDagley's investigations - and earlier this year accused him of violating county law because of the way he made his complaints known. Leggett has attempted to move the office under executive branch control and also to fold the county ethics commission into the executive branch, but those efforts have been shot down by a charter review commission and the council.

"If you want to ensure maximum independence, then you want the inspector general in the legislative branch," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville).

Since most of the focus of an inspector general's investigations is on the executive branch - where the bulk of the county's money is collected and spent -"you want that person in the branch of government that is not the primary focus of investigation," Andrews said.

While the Montgomery inspector general is under the aegis of the council, the office sets its own annual work plan and determines what to investigate.

No matter how it is structured, the job of government watchdog can be a challenge.

"A very tough skin"

"You do go into these jobs with your eyes wide open," said Lorraine Lewis, who was inspector general at the federal Department of Education during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. "You have to have a very tough skin."

She said an inspector general must "be absolutely vigilant about your independence. Call it as you see it, don't mince words, make sure you have the resources you need to do the job, stand tall, answer questions and communicate well."

Paul Light, a professor at New York University who has studied inspectors general, said such jobs can be "like straddling a barbed-wire fence."

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