The chief auditor of a regional park and planning commission has been demoted after his
office produced several audits questioning spending by top agency officials, according to
several people with knowledge
of the situation.

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.

Belachew, who was the agency’s chief auditor for nearly three years, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He is on leave, agency officials said.

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.”

For several years, the arena, which is off Pennsylvania Avenue, near Route 301, has operated at a loss. In fiscal 2010, it recorded losses of $2.8 million, according to commission records. The commission, which has an operating budget of more than $420 million, oversees development and parks in Montgomery County, and development, parks and recreation in Prince George’s County.

Agency officials said that they are not bowing to political pressure and that Belachew’s demotion is unrelated to Miller’s complaints. “In no way did the letter . . . prompt commission leadership to make any changes to the audit division or its ongoing work program,” the commission said in a written statement.

The commission is led by Francoise Carrier of Montgomery and Betty Hewlett of Prince George’s County, who head the planning boards in their respective counties and who alternate as chairman of the bi-county commission.

The commission’s annual financial reports for the past several years, compiled by an outside firm, showed no sign of problems in the audit office. In 2010, an association of local government auditors conducted a review of the audit office, and found its operations “suitably designed and operating effectively.”

Carrier and Hewlett declined to discuss Belachew’s demotion, saying it was a personnel matter exempt from public disclosure.

The draft audit of the Show Place Arena conducted by Belachew’s office last year questioned more than $200,000 in payments authorized by William Chambers, who headed the arena for more than two decades. Chambers, a member of the Calvert County Board of Education, is a political ally of Miller’s. Miller did not respond to requests for comment.

The draft audit also questioned Chambers’s use of his official car; payments and contracts with businesses and community groups, including one led by his wife; and salary for days that auditors said he was not at work. Chambers has denied wrongdoing. He retired last summer shortly after being informed by one of his supervisors, deputy parks chief Julie Forker, that questions had been raised about his stewardship of the arena, Chambers said in an interview soon after his departure.

After Miller’s letter, Belachew suspended the audit of the arena to ensure that the audit office’s work would not be perceived as tainted by political pressure, according to several people with knowledge of his decision.

The commission’s general counsel, Adrian Gardner, said that an “investigation” stemming from the Show Place draft audit was ongoing and would be released soon. He said the probe is being conducted by Anthony T. Pierce, a partner with the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

In 2009, Belachew’s team raised the ire of Montgomery’s then-planning board chairman, Royce Hanson, after an audit found that Montgomery’s planning director, Rollin Stanley, tried to block an investigation of his spending practices and those of his agency. Hanson defended Stanley and the planning department and said that “things had been corrected.” Stanley surrendered his agency credit card and repaid about $600 in expenses that had been wrongly charged to the agency, according to a report by the commission.

During the course of that audit, Stanley defended the spending practices on the grounds that they were for emergency purposes and to save the agency money.

Last year, Belachew’s office conducted an audit of commission cars that some employees and top officials are allowed to take home. The contents of that audit remain under wraps, despite requests from the Montgomery County Council, which attempted to review it last fall, and The Post, which filed a public records request. The commission provided a highly redacted version of the audit to The Post and blacked out almost all of its findings, citing security, among other reasons.

Meanwhile, a union representing employees of the bi-county commission has begun questioning the commission’s fiscal management of its health benefits fund, saying that the commission had to reduce its share of payments for employee health benefits after an unanticipated increase in costs of at least
$3 million.

After the union complained, the audit office conducted a review, which has not been made public by the commission. Patricia Barney, the commission’s executive director, said the benefits fund has adequate reserves.

The Maryland General Assembly’s audit committee, co-chaired by state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) and Del. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), has begun asking the commission about the benefits fund. The two lawmakers said they will review the commission’s responses, which they have not yet received, before deciding whether to seek a full state audit of the funds.

“When questions are raised, we need to focus on them,” Rosapepe said. Guzzone said, “We will take a look at the answers and see what we have at that point.”