Flap over inmates' funds makes Gary look foolish


February 23, 1997|By Brian Sullam

WHEN IT appeared that something wasn't quiet right with the commissary account at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, did County Executive John G. Gary seem more concerned about the missing money or that the county auditor "violated" the charter by not advising him first?

The answer to that question may help explain why so many people are turned off by politics, politicians and the current state of representative government.

To any objective observer, County Auditor Teresa Sutherland's preliminary findings that $10,000 of inmates' cash could not be accounted for was disturbing.

Add to that the sudden resignation of George Braxton, the detention center's deputy superintendent, and news that a police investigation into this matter was quietly and abruptly halted two years ago, and the picture looks even worse.

Faced with this embarrassing set of facts, Mr. Gary decided to threaten Ms. Sutherland with a suit -- as if she were the source of this political stink bomb.

Mr. Gary also is now refusing to have informational meetings with the County Council because it disclosed to the press his threat to sue Ms. Sutherland.

Even the most superficially informed county resident can figure out that detention center officials are responsible for the strong stench coming from the jail -- not Ms. Sutherland or her supporter, County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans.

Nursing a grudge

Mr. Gary is nursing a grudge against Ms. Sutherland for her earlier investigation into why Mr. Gary's political ally, John Greiber, received $10,000 from the county for legal work.

Ms. Sutherland's inquiry provoked Mr. Gary because she took her findings to Mrs. Evans, who is emerging as the executive's political nemesis.

As it turned out, Mr. Greiber did nothing wrong, and the matter was dropped. But to Mr. Gary, Ms. Sutherland's investigative efforts appeared to be a thinly disguised political hatchet job on him.

Rather than taking the high road and proclaiming that he will get to the bottom of the detention center mess, Mr. Gary comes across as a petty politician more interested in settling scores than cleaning up scandal.

Ms. Sutherland's staff has been systematically examining the records and procedures of all county departments. In the midst of a routine examination of detention center accounts, auditors discovered deposit slips missing.

Ms. Sutherland did nothing wrong in trying to obtain all the commissary records from the detention center.

When Mr. Braxton, the jail official, allegedly stonewalled her, she decided to consult with an experienced fraud investigator in the state's attorney's office. Ms. Sutherland was doing nothing more than searching for advice on how to pry lose the records she needed. She was doing her job, it would appear.

Mr. Gary is correct in saying that Ms. Sutherland did not follow the precise dictates of the charter, which says the auditor must notify the executive and council of any discovery of irregularities. Apparently, Ms. Sutherland failed to notify the appropriate people.

Civil matter

But failing to do so is not a criminal act, as the administration suggested. It is a civil matter.

If Mr. Gary were to follow through with his threat and file suit against the auditor as an individual, the best he could hope to obtain would be an injunction ordering Ms. Sutherland to follow the charter.

Mr. Gary also could try to round up four votes on the council to oust Ms. Sutherland. That effort is likely to backfire; council members have yet to feel pressure from constituents to get rid of her.

Mr. Gary's anger toward Ms. Sutherland is apparently clouding his judgment on how to handle the problems at the jail.

There will always be some tension between the auditor and the executive, but Mr. Gary's animus goes beyond the normal bureaucratic rivalry.

Rather than obsess over Ms. Sutherland and Ms. Evans, who may be preparing to challenge Mr. Gary in next year's Republican primary, Mr. Gary ought to focus his ire on the officials who have not served him or the taxpayers well.

'95 investigation dropped

Mr. Gary has asked the police to investigate. He might be wise to first ask the department why it dropped a 1995 investigation into detention center accounts.

It has been reported that when a number of jail employees refused to take polygraph examinations, police just halted their inquiry. No one seems to know why.

Mr. Gary might also ask why none of the supervisors at the detention center were aware of the missing deposit slips. He might also inquire as to what types of internal controls were in place to assure that cash was going to the proper accounts and not into someone's pocket.

If he attends to these matters and drops his carping about Ms. Sutherland, the county executive will help reassure voters his priorities are in proper order.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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