Officials in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties are raising questions about the demotion of the chief auditor of the two counties’ park and planning commission after he audited top officials’ spending, their use of official cars and expenses at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.
Abinet Y. Belachew was placed in a staff auditing position and his $124,000 salary was cut by more than $30,000, according to records from the agency, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. He is on leave, officials said.
Prince George’s County Council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel), who sits on the committee that oversees the $420 million bi-county agency, said the demotion raises questions that she wants the agencies’ officials to answer, and she is concerned about ongoing operating losses at the Show Place Arena.
She said she sent an e-mail to Prince George’s parks chief Ronnie Gaithers seeking further information.
Prince George’s council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), who chairs the committee, said that because commission officials have described the matter as a personnel issue exempt from public disclosure, he doubts the council will be able to get information.
On the Montgomery side, council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said he would press the agency to provide information about the car audit, which agency officials have held back from both the council and the public. The Washington Post, which filed a public records request for the audit, received a highly redacted version, which commission general counsel Adrian Gardner said was all he could provide. He cited security issues among others.
Belachew, who was the agency’s chief auditor for nearly three years, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Belachew’s demotion became official in February, several months after the audit office he led raised questions about spending at the Show Place Arena, an Upper Marlboro entertainment venue managed by the commission. The draft audit, which was obtained by The Washington Post last year, drew criticism from Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). In a letter to the commission, Miller praised the then-chief of the arena, labeled the audit “a witch hunt” and then noted, “That would be unkind to witches.”
Bob Stewart, executive director of UFCW Local 1994, which represents about 600 commission employees, said he was troubled by Belachew’s demotion.
“For the top leadership of the commission to suggest to the public that there is no connection between the treatment of this credible public servant and Mr. Miller’s irate letter ... is laughable,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the union is continuing to press for a state audit of the commission’s health fund. The union says its top officials were told that the fund fell short by about $7.5 million; Patti Barney, the commission’s executive director, said the fund’s expenses were about $3 million higher than expected last year, but that it continues to have sufficient reserves.
“We are seeking an outside, independent audit. We don’t believe the commission is capable of doing an internal audit themselves without shooting the messenger,” Stewart said.