Breaking the rules in the housing department

Our view: Inspector general's report should result in more than the firing of one employee

April 06, 2011

Baltimore's new inspector general clearly has his work cut out for him. David McClintock, who was hired by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about a year ago, reported this week that an assistant superintendent of housing inspections had been convicted of multiple counts of theft in his previous job with the state Department of Corrections and, when he submitted himself to a background check 18 months after taking his job with the city, he lied on the forms about his name and Social Security number. Add to that the fact that he did not meet the city's qualifications for any of the jobs he held. Once Mr. McClintock informed the housing department, the man, Algie C. Epps, was promptly fired.

That's well and good, but if the city really wants to root out waste, fraud and corruption, as the mayor said she intended in revitalizing the position of inspector general, it needs to do more than get rid of one employee who improperly got and dishonestly maintained his job. It needs to bring to account all of the people and systems that allowed it to happen — and on that score, it's not at all clear that the city's action is nearly so swift and decisive.

Here are a few of the ways in which the system failed in the case of Mr. Epps:

•When he was hired in 2005 as a housing inspector, the city does not appear to have conducted a "criminal history investigation" — a basic background check — that is required by law. Had it done one, or even performed a simple Google search, it would have found that he stood accused of falsifying sick leave forms while at the Department of Corrections and had been fired from that job as a result.

•Mr. Epps failed to meet the education or experience requirements for any of the jobs he held at the housing department.

•Although city regulations required him to obtain "special enforcement officer certification" within six months of being hired as a housing inspector, which entails a more thorough background check conducted by the Baltimore Police Department, Mr. Epps did not apply for one until he had been with the department 18 months, during which time he had already been promoted.

•When he did apply for the special enforcement officer status, Mr. Epps lied on his forms about his birth date, Social Security number and middle name. That was not only part of the grounds for the department's denial of special enforcement officer status but is a firing offense. Mr. McClintock says that the police department did inform the housing department of the falsification, but city officials say they don't know who knew about it and insist that senior officials in the agency were not informed.

•Mr. Epps was initially denied a promotion to superintendent of housing inspections after his failure to achieve special enforcement officer status, but he appealed that decision and got the job anyway.

This is not a case of a rogue employee. There is no evidence that, other than lying on his background check forms, Mr. Epps acted improperly while working for the city. It is, however, a case of the housing department failing repeatedly to follow the rules. And what is its response? Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano wrote in his reply to Mr. McClintock's report that the department should stop requiring housing inspectors to obtain special enforcement officer status, He lamented the need to fire Mr. Epps and suggested that the whole thing was prompted by complaints from "another agency that had been for years permitting the same to occur." He also said that, given the applicant pool for entry-level jobs, the city has to recognize and accept "a varying degree of experience."

A spokesman for Mayor Rawlings-Blake said the city is trying to find out who knew what and when about Mr. Epps' falsified forms but that it is entirely possible that the only one who did was the department's human resources supervisor at the time, someone who is no longer working for the city.

Even if that's the case, the matter should not end there. If the police department finds that a city employee has committed fraud, shouldn't that merit informing the department head? If this former human resources supervisor ignored the rules for Mr. Epps, how many other unqualified or otherwise questionable employees may have been hired and promoted in the housing department? And if the head of a city agency is saying that the qualification requirements for a municipal job shouldn't be taken so seriously, what message does that send to current and prospective city employees about how closely they need to follow the rules?

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