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Baltimore City Inspector General experiencing push back while investigating school system

Posted at 3:36 PM, Feb 11, 2019

BALTIMORE — One year into the job, Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming quadrupled the number of hotline calls, discovered more than $1 million in taxpayer money had been wasted, and restructured the Office following a 16-month vacancy left by her predecessor who resigned.

She exceeded the goals she had set for herself, and now she's on to a new challenge: establishing jurisdiction over a city agency that says it's not subject to her authority.

"I'm going to keep on doing whatever we have to do to make sure there is transparency and accountability in government. And right now, my biggest, my biggest concern has been with, believe it or not, with the school system, which takes $200 million and they're questioning whether I have the jurisdiction to look into them," said Cumming.

A spokesperson with the school system said they're providing documents to Cumming by responding to her Maryland Public Information Act request. And while they accept city funds, they say they're separate from city government and her oversight.

"If you take money from the City of Baltimore, I can look into you, and if there's issues, I will look into you," Cumming said.

The Inspector General would not say what she's investigating regarding the school system, but said she filed the MPIA request last August and has only just recently started receiving responses.

In the first week of February, a bill was introduced in the General Assembly providing the City Inspector General with the authority to investigate the Police Department of Baltimore City and Baltimore City Public Schools. Senate Bill 818 introduced by Senators Antonio Hayes, Jill Carter, and Cory McCray is scheduled to have a hearing on March 7.

While the battle over authority is one-part of her focus, Cumming is also asking for more tips from the public on any potential waste, fraud, or mismanagement involving taxpayer money.

"I just call myself the people's investigator," said Cumming.

Tips helped her Office identify $1,092,280.04 in financial waste, which is around $4 per city taxpayer. This included water meters stolen and resold for scrap metal; the health department's "wasteful spending" on boxes of promotional materials; and money from the city's Employee Retirement System misused for office renovations and its Chief Investment Officer frequently absent from work.

READ MORE: OIG Report: Funds for Baltimore City lead program spent on promotional items, gifts & travel

"When we did our investigation, it turned out he was only here maybe 60 days out of 150, and that both him and the chairman of the board had their driver's license in Florida," Cumming said.

Her fraud fighting accolades are proudly displayed around her office. A framed headline with "The Wrath of Isabel" in big bold letters sends a message of what could happen to any government employee or official defrauding taxpayers.

"This is my calling, this is my passion, I love fighting fraud," said Cumming.

Last November, Baltimore City voters approved a ballot amendment making the Office of the Inspector General independent. Cumming said the charter amendment provides the Office with subpoena powers to undertake investigations without political influence or pressure.

To report fraud, waste, or abuse, call the Office of the Inspector Hotline at 443-984-3476. Callers can remain anonymous.