Baltimore’s watchdog should not be leashed | COMMENTARY

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Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, Baltimore Sun
·4 min read
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In 2018, Baltimore voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment establishing an independent inspector general with the power to fight waste and corruption in City Hall. It was hailed at the time as an important step forward in good government as it would prevent the political establishment from meddling in investigations. Small wonder that the measure received 83% of the vote, the highest tally for any ballot question or candidate. Corruption and city government are not exactly unfamiliar bedfellows. And this was before then-Mayor Catherine Pugh was caught up in the “Healthy Holly” scandal for which she was federally indicted, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

Yet recent criticism of Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming by supporters of City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her husband, Council President Nick Mosby, have raised questions about just how independent Ms. Cumming can be under the current structure. She has been attacked chiefly for her report on Ms. Mosby’s travels and private investment, a review Ms. Mosby actually requested (and which, incidentally, found no criminal behavior). And it has gone so far as to provoke an inquiry by the city’s NAACP chapter, which has speculated that Ms. Cumming may be demonstrating a pattern of racial preference, casting greater scrutiny on city leaders, as well as government vendors, who are Black. Ms. Mosby’s lawyers, too, have been sharp in their attacks, criticizing the IG for suggesting that Ms. Mosby was not engaged in her job while traveling extensively (144 days in 2018 and 2019 alone) and pointing to a surveillance video of Ms. Cumming escorting federal agents seeking financial records from President Mosby’s office as evidence that she is “personally, politically and even racially motivated” against Marilyn and Nick Mosby.

Without getting into specifics of the matter, such as, for example, the minutiae of how and when an elected official must have certain forms of travel approved in advance, the concern here is whether political pressure can be brought to bear against the inspector general — whether the position is held by Ms. Cumming or anyone else — in order to sidestep investigations or future prosecutions. In a virtual meeting with The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board on Monday, Ms. Cumming echoed that concern, acknowledging that she has never so much as sat down to chat with the board that is supposed to be supervising her under the 2018 charter amendment. Not once. That board, which must have at least five members, is supposed to include the mayor and City Council president or their designees, the city solicitor or his designee and a member of the City Council designated by the City Council president. The two Maryland law school deans may also be invited to join the panel (and they may have been, but that’s not entirely clear to the IG). It takes four votes to remove the inspector general from her six-year term if proper cause is shown.

Yet it does not take a political strategist to recognize that a council president with control of two votes and a mayor with control of two could oust an inspector general who turned up the heat beyond their liking. The short-term fix would be to hold regular, formal, public meetings of the advisory group, including both deans, so there would be greater transparency. The long-term version would be to add some additional members to the board who are not based in City Hall, perhaps from the community at large, but this would likely require a charter amendment.

That’s not to suggest there should not be a watchdog watching the watchdog. Of course, that’s important. Maryland’s history is not one plagued by overly aggressive prosecutions of public figures, however, but one of quite a few elected officials justifiably ending up in prison or at least chased out of office. Ms. Cumming has in her three years as IG at the very least demonstrated a willingness to seek out wrongdoing. Reports of malfeasance on her hotline have gone from about 70 a year to 750 over three years with an estimated 15% ending up in criminal referral. And it should also be noted, she’s performed her duties with a diverse staff. Ms. Cumming is Latina, and the majority of her staff are African American.

Ultimately the critical question is not about the Mosby investigation or even Ms. Cumming’s performance in office, but about whether an independent investigator serving in a position with overwhelming public approval can be politically maneuvered or bullied away from adequately performing her duties. To our knowledge, and despite all the clamor, it has not happened in this case. But might it in the future? That prospect should give all Baltimoreans pause.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.