Inspector general's autonomy questioned

City Comptroller Pratt maintains post's credibility is impaired by ties to mayor's office

March 30, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore's new inspector general - a position created to root out fraud and corruption - was criticized yesterday by the city comptroller, who argued the office cannot effectively investigate City Hall as long as it answers to the mayor.

In an unusual, 10-minute speech at the Board of Estimates meeting, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said the city's office of inspector general is tied so tightly to Mayor Martin O'Malley that its objectivity and credibility are compromised.

"Independence is not possible," said Pratt, who yesterday cast the sole vote against spending $320,500 to staff the office. "This clearly represents a conflict of interest."

Inspectors general are becoming more prominent in cities and states across the nation as a way for executives to investigate allegations of malfeasance in their administrations - scrutiny that was once exercised mainly by auditors.

Pratt, who oversees the city's Department of Audits, argued that her staff is in a better position to review the operations of executive agencies because, as a separately elected official, she is not beholden to the mayor. Baltimore's inspector general's office is organized under the city's law department.

O'Malley created the inspector general's office last year with an executive order and, in July, he appointed Andrew S. Clemmons, a former top U.S. postal inspector, to the job. He has said the position will act as a central recipient for allegations of corruption.

In response to Pratt's remarks, O'Malley and City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said the creation of the inspector general's office does not prohibit the comptroller from conducting audits on city agencies as she has always done.

"Nothing in this in any way, shape or form was intended to either impede the prerogative of your independent office or to stand in the way of audits that you wish to ... conduct," O'Malley said.

Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia are among a growing number of cities that have created offices of inspector general. Many cities and states leave the audit function of their comptrollers' offices intact.

"The ideal situation is when you get the two working together," said Roland Malan, executive director of the Association of Inspectors General, which has about 500 members. "There's a lot of distinction between doing an investigation and doing an audit."

Malan said the association supports giving inspectors general as much autonomy as possible, adding that the offices are more effective when created legislatively, rather than by executive order.

Clemmons, Baltimore's inspector general, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Discussion of the inspector general comes as City Hall is embroiled in an ethics controversy involving City Council President Sheila Dixon and Union Technologies, or Utech, a firm that employs her sister and that helps manage Baltimore's computer network. Pratt's accounting practice has prepared the company's taxes, The Sun has reported.

Yesterday, the Board of Estimates approved funding for a five-member staff for the inspector general. The city's proposed fiscal year 2007 budget, separately, allocates $636,000 for the office.

Pratt said she objects to an inspector general on principle. Officials in the mayor's office have attempted to interfere with audits before, she said, and will surely hold sway over what the inspector general investigates.

"Their independence is impaired," Pratt said. "They just can't do it."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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