Reforming Prince George's

Our view: An independent inspector general's office is urgently needed to restore the county's tarnished image

May 02, 2011

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III took office this year pledging to clean up the county's reputation for government corruption and a "pay-to-play" culture that, if federal indictments are accurate, forced companies to offer officials bribes as a cost of doing business there. Among Mr. Baker's first acts was to appoint a task force charged with recommending steps the county needed to take in order to restore its tarnished image and the public's trust in government. This week that body spoke, and Mr. Baker and the Prince George's County Council would do well to heed its advice.

The task force, chaired by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, urged Mr. Baker and county officials to create an independent inspector general's office as a watchdog on county government. The new agency would be in addition to the County Council's already existing Office of Audits and Investigations, which is appointed by the council and therefore has an inherent conflict of interest when its members are involved.

The five-member Prince George's County Board of Ethics, a separate watchdog body appointed by the county executive and approved by the council, is nominally responsible for hearing and ruling on complaints of public corruption, but in practice it has little power to hold wrongdoers accountable. For one, it can't act on its own but instead must wait for a formal complaint to be filed, even if it has reason to suspect government malfeasance. On top of that it lacks the power to subpoena witnesses, has no full-time staff, no regular meeting schedule and no budget. Nor does the county have a comprehensive ethics code that specifies what acts are prohibited.

Given the board's relative weakness compared to the powerful political and business interests it is supposed to oversee, it's no wonder it hasn't made a dent in the county's corruption problem. How ineffective it has been can be judged by the fact that during the entire three-year federal and state investigation that led to the arrest in January of former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife on corruption charges, the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil ethics board failed to hold a single meeting on the matter.

Mr. Baker, who supported the idea of an independent inspector general's office during last year's election campaign, and Council Chairwoman Ingrid Turner both say they want to see the details of the task force's recommendations before making a final decision. But it should be obvious that simply strengthening the current audit board and expanding its role — one of the steps also recommended by the task force — is no substitute for a truly independent ethics watchdog equipped with a full-time professional staff, the power to initiate investigations and its own budget.

If Prince George's officials want an example of the good a fully empowered independent inspector general's office can do, they need look no further than Baltimore. In the year since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed David N. McClintock as the city's I.G., his office has uncovered municipal workers gambling and drinking on the job, a city housing department supervisor who was convicted of theft and lied about it on a criminal background check, and the mishandling of funds paid by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack Young" to a private contractor to work on his Web site. That's more than Mr. McClintock's predecessor managed to accomplish during his entire term in office.

The task force headed by Mr. Schmoke suggests the cost of setting up an independent I.G.'s office is well within the county's ability, even in today's tough budget climate. The county should look at it as an investment in its future because the economic development it hopes to spur won't happen as long as companies believe they can't do business there without paying off corrupt officials. The cloud of official malfeasance must be lifted before Prince George's potential for growth can be realized. That won't happen overnight, but the county could make a good start in that direction by embracing the changes recommended by the Schmoke task force.

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