Mayor to propose forming city ethics watchdog office

It would probe allegations of fraud, mismanagement

July 08, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce today that he wants to create an agency responsible for investigating allegations of fraud, corruption and mismanagement in city government.

O'Malley will declare his intention to establish an Office of Inspector General when he signs into law a sweeping new ethics bill during an afternoon ceremony at City Hall.

"The mayor made a commitment when he came into office for open and transparent government," said Raquel Guillory, his press secretary. "This new ethics legislation and the creation of an Office of Inspector General furthers that commitment."

Guillory said pending federal and state investigations into elected and former administration officials were not the impetus for creating an Office of Inspector General. The revisions to the ethics law, approved by the City Council last month, were spurred by O'Malley and demonstrate his desire to "guard against improper influence" and "to ensure public trust in government," according to a briefing document for the mayor's ceremony today.

Council members have been under federal scrutiny since September, when U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio began a wide-ranging investigation into their practices. His office subpoenaed all 19 members for documents detailing office finances, hiring practices, expense and campaign accounts and relationships with certain businesses over the past five years.

Last summer, The Sun reported that several council members had hired relatives as assistants. Also reported was that members were receiving free entry to the parking garages of a company that was asking the council for a tax break and that they received free tickets to movies and events.

The Board of Ethics chastised the council in October for accepting the parking passes and said that employing siblings violated ethics law. That led council President Sheila Dixon to fire her sister, Janice Dixon, as a council assistant.

The new ethics law expands the list of relatives that council members are prohibited from hiring and includes the families of other elected officials.

Investigators have also subpoenaed several developers for data related to their relationships with Dixon and three former city officials, including O'Malley appointees Gary M. Brooks and Owen M. Tonkins.

Subpoenas for documents do not indicate that the recipients are targets of an investigation.

Brooks left Dec. 30 as chief executive of the Baltimore Community Development Finance Corp., a city-related lending agency, to pursue a private law practice. Tonkins left at the same time after nearly three years as head of the Office of Minority Business Development.

Tonkins is being investigated by state prosecutors who are pursuing allegations that he tried to pressure a minority company to pay two New Jersey men for no-show work on a downtown project, according to sources familiar with the probe.

O'Malley is asking new City Solicitor Ralph Tyler to explore creating an Office of Inspector General that would "inspect and investigate allegations of fraud, corruption and mismanagement within city government," according to the briefing document.

The office would be an "independent agency" that would report to Tyler "with the right to make criminal referrals as appropriate." The mayor's office will ask Tyler to examine whether it can be staffed with existing resources.

The idea caused concern among some council members.

Councilmen Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said state prosecutors, the state's attorney's office, the Police Department, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and CitiStat - the system for statistical analysis and evaluation of city services - are supposed to target and handle allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

"I'm not sure where the mayor is going with this," Harris said. "We have checks and balances already in city government."

Guillory said the proposed office would be more active. But that did not suit D'Adamo.

"It's all window dressing and a waste of taxpayer money," he said. "We have people in line now to prosecute fraud."

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