Wrath Of Isabel: Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming on going after waste and fraud

Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming / Photo by Brandon Block

Since Isabel Mercedes Cumming became Baltimore’s Inspector General in February of 2018, she has responded to over 400 complaints, hired 9 new investigators, located over $1 million in wasteful spending, and seems to have gotten at least two agency directors canned. 

Those are major strides for The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) which didn’t issue a single report in 2017 and lacked a permanent director for 18 months prior to Cumming’s appointment.

In nearly twenty reports, Cumming’s revived office has hunted down pork spending and called out rule-breaking with stringent, even prosecutorial zeal. She previously worked in Prince George’s County heading up the Economic Crimes and Police Misconduct division, and before that had a stint in Baltimore City as an Assistant State’s Attorney going after white-collar crime, which was satisfying, important work, she said.

“When I was doing Juvenile and District court and some people have lives you can’t even believe. And nothing’s justified, but you kind of get it more. White collar? You’ve had the best of everything, you’re at the top, you just wanted more,” Cumming said. “And people don’t learn that, when enough is enough. So, it’s very fulfilling and usually they’re ripping off the people that need it [most], so that’s why I really do love what I do.”

June has been a busy month for Cumming and OIG: A few weeks ago, Cumming revealed that a manager in the Baltimore City Department Of Transportation was caught driving for a rideshare service while on the clock—really long rides, too—“outside of the Baltimore metropolitan area”—and as a result of her findings, has been fired. And just yesterday, OIG revealed that two city employees who relocated—one on the West Coast, one in Europe—were still being paid to work remotely while receiving benefits and improperly using sick leave.

That case, Cumming said, originated with a hotline complaint: “The OIG appreciates the citizens and employees that turn cases like this in—they are making a difference,” she said.  

Hanging up in Cumming’s City Hall office is a framed newspaper from 2003. The paper’s headline reads “The Wrath Of Isabel,” referring to the hurricane that devastated Baltimore County but given to her by her detective as a way to praise of her skills weeding out corruption.

“I’m not a political person at all. I can maneuver through politics but I’m not political, in that I just want to get my job done. If I start getting political, then I’m not doing my job,” Cumming said. “So I just try to keep it to the facts, the situation, and let the elected officials do what they’re going to do.”

The OIG was created in 2005 via executive order by Martin O’Malley and it reported to the mayor. Last winter, Baltimore voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative making it an independent city agency that no longer reports to the mayor (the initiative also gave it subpoena powers). It was a change championed by councilperson Ryan Dorsey. 

“[The OIG reporting to the mayor] by all accounts led to every previous IG either not doing the job as it should be done or doing the job and getting pushed out because of it,” Dorsey said.

Currently, Cumming is investigating former mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” book deals, a situation that would have been fraught under the old setup, where the IG could be fired by the mayor at will. The last IG was allegedly fired for looking too closely at top city hall officials. Robert H. Pearre was forced to resign in 2016, after there was a pushback against his investigation of wrongdoing by the city’s Chief Information Officer. Pearre later told the Brew that he was warned by former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kimberly Morton not to investigate any more “senior” officials. He also alleged that Pugh (the incoming mayor at the time) gave the order to have him fired.

Cumming’s revived investigations have already prompted two “senior” officials to resign. DOT director Michelle Pourciao stepped down in April amid an IG probe into “morale” in her office, which saw numerous top staff flee and included an allegation of “bullying, intimidation, and outright harassment, originating from the highest levels of leadership.” And last summer, Human Resources director Mary H. Talley resigned just two weeks after getting the heads up that Cumming was investigating allegations of leadership “ridiculing and demeaning” employees.

That investigation began somewhere else though. Wiith multiple complaints about the high price tag of the job fair “WorkBaltimore.” And it turned up odd tangents such as the city spending $26,000 “conceptualizing” two anti-smoking mascots—Smokey Crush and Leaf, a crumpled cigarette and frowning tobacco leaf respectively, who post up at various events and lead group line dances and tell kids not to smoke. 

It also appears, from this video of Rawlings-Blake dancing with them, that they commissioned original music. It is not clear how much this cost or who made it. After Cumming’s report, Smokey Crush and Leafy were no more (their instagram survives, however).

“Sometimes little things end up being huge things,” Cumming said. “Sometimes it’s the tip of an iceberg, or it’s something that has really bothered a citizen.” 

Still, Cumming’s reports occasionally seem like small potatoes, especially when they’re focused on workers rather than management. One might wonder, for example, whether casing a DOT employee’s house to see if they’re going home early is a good use of time and resources.

Cumming admits that her public reports can appear nitpicky and sometimes they’re even shrugged off by department heads as overzealous. One from last August soberly titled “Abuse of Authority by the Director of the Municipal Phone Exchange” chewed out (but didn’t name) Simon Etta, who oversees the city’s phone systems for buying an iPhone 7 ($220) with city money for “personal” use. His boss at the Comptroller’s Office didn’t seem to think it was a big deal and argued that he needed it for “legitimate business” stuff—but made him pay the $220 back anyway, a victory for Cumming.

“Sometimes it’s the level of who the person is. If their responsibility is to monitor how much money the city is spending on phones, and they do something and cut themselves a break…it may look like you’re nitpicking,” Cumming said. “But if the watchdog is the one that’s abusing the system, what else could they be doing?” 

Wasteful spending is both a crusade for Cumming, and also a red flag that often indicates further wrongdoing. Early in her career, she prosecuted Comptroller Jacqueline Mclean, who was indicted for paying $25,000 to a made up employee and abusing her position to obtain a permit for a property in Federal Hill.

“Following the money is what I’ve always done,” Cumming, who began as an account 35 years ago, said. “The only thing I really liked about accounting was finding fraud. The rest of it was god awful.” 

The OIG has its limits, however. Because Baltimore’s police department is a state agency, it’s not under the OIG’s purview, and Cumming’s office has yet to publish any investigations. Excessive overtime and outright overtime fraud has been an ongoing problem in BPD as evidenced by the Gun Trace Task Force Scandal or even, the recent charges against Sgt. Ethan Newberg, who upon his arrest was revealed to be earning  $243,000 per year, mostly due to overtime.

There is a Memorandum of Understanding—established under IG David McClintok, who resigned in 2013—that allows for BPD to voluntarily cooperate with investigations. Cumming would not say if there are any ongoing investigations into BPD, but said they have given her all the information she’s asked for so far. 

Cumming, who sees the worst of city governance every day, has every right to be cynical, yet she challenges claims about Baltimore being somehow uniquely corrupt.

“I’m here because I believe in the city and I believe we can make things better,” Cumming said. “Everyone has their own problems, we just need to keep moving forward and try to change the culture that has existed.” 

When Cumming meets with new city employees during their orientation, she gives them her card and tells them to call if they see anything that doesn’t seem right.

“If people tell you when you’re asking a question about why something is done and they tell you, ‘Because it has always been done that way,’ that’s not a good enough answer,” Cumming said.