Large payments Mayor Catherine Pugh accepted for self-published children’s books may provide the first significant test of expanded powers granted Baltimore’s inspector general.
Isabel Mercedes Cumming, the city’s inspector general, said she can’t confirm or deny any ongoing investigations. She did, however, acknowledge the ability to probe alleged financial misconduct, waste and fraud by city employees. Those probes, after city voters approved a charter amendment in November, now include the power of subpoena.
“We are the people’s independent watchdog,” Cumming said.
Cumming said her office continuously seeks tips on potential malfeasance by city employees. All tips, including email and calls to her office’s hotline, she said, can be sent anonymously.
Pugh, 69, took a leave of absence on Tuesday, which a statement from her office said she needs to recover from pneumonia requiring hospitalization.
Her decision to step aside also coincided with a series of reports the former state senator accepted nearly $700,000 from businesses and non-profits for copies of her “Healthy Holly” book series. Those purchases overlapped with Pugh pushing legislation book buyers supported, or while they were seeking city contracts.
At least two city lawmakers have requested a probe by the inspector general into the roughly $114,000 Kaiser Permanente paid Pugh between 2015 and 2018. The payments overlapped with the time period in which the company sought, and won, a $48 million contract to provide health insurance to city employees.
Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and Councilman Ryan Dorsey individually requested the inspector general investigate the book purchase and health insurance contract.
Sneed said she asked Cumming to probe Pugh’s financial dealings during telephone conversation. The first-term councilwoman from east Baltimore said she requested the review after constituents inundated her office with calls and messages urging the council to explore the matter.
“We can’t do it at a council level,” said Sneed, adding that’s why she made the request to the Cumming.
Dorsey, who represents northeast Baltimore, sent a letter requesting an investigation into the bidding process and subsequent awarding of the contract. He’s also asked Baltimore’s director of human resources to examine potential for disruptions to city employee health care if Kaiser Permanente’s contract is negated.
“The Board of Estimates has the power to suspend or cancel contracts (in cases deals are granted improperly),” Dorsey said.
Nearly 80 percent of city voters supported a charter amendment in November that advocates said would strengthen the inspector general’s office. The measure, in addition to granting subpoena power, created a new structure intended to prevent political interference in investigations.
Previously the city solicitor, who is appointed by the mayor, named inspector generals. That arrangement, which dates back to the creation of the inspector general’s office under former Mayor and Gov. Martin O’Malley, left open the possibility for a mayor to force an inspector general to resign if fact-finding turned politically damaging.
In an effort to prevent such hypothetical meddling the amendment created an advisory panel to oversee the inspector general. The charter change also requires Baltimore to fund the inspector general’s office to prevent politicians handicapping probes by cutting off backing.
Prior to the amendment passing, Cumming, who was appointed by City Solicitor Andre Davis in early 2018, proved willing to issue reports critical of the mayor. The first woman to hold the job, Cumming stood her ground when Pugh criticized her office’s work last October.
The inspector general’s office issued a report casting doubt on the value of the WorkBaltimore job fair, which cost more than $425,000 to hold. Investigators, according to a summary posted online, spoke with “numerous” current and former Department of Human Resources employees critical of diverted time and funds.
The Pugh administration paid for WorkBaltimore with funds from the Department of Human Resources’ budget, private donations and sponsorships. Money also came via a $100,000 loan from the city’s Innovation Fund. That loan was supposed to be repaid within a year, but the inspector general’s report found it was never reimbursed.
Pugh, during a news conference following the report’s release, seized on an error in the summary, which described the job fair as a one-day event, to cast doubt on its overall findings.
Cumming, a former Prince George’s County and Baltimore prosecutor, admitted it was incorrect to describe WorkBaltimore as a one-day event. But she contended the report also mentioned job fair related events were held over a month’s time.
“We stand behind the report,” Cumming said at the time.