Bay to Bay News | by Craig Anderson
The recent indictment of Delaware’s state auditor has spurred a new drive to create an Inspector General’s Office.
That’s according to Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, who believes that an independent entity should monitor, investigate and evaluate state agencies receiving state funds.
Since Kathy McGuiness was accused of corruption by the Delaware Attorney General’s Office in October — she pleaded not guilty to all charges — there’s been a more receptive response to the idea of an IG, the representative said.
“Now, when I mention the topic of an inspector general, which we’ve been pursuing for a while, the ears seem to be more attuned to ‘Yes, we have to do something … about this,’” he said, adding that mismanagement at Connections Community Support Programs, among others, has spurred discussions, as well.
“Each day, … new ‘questionable’ situations arise (and) seem to fuel interest,” he said.
There’s a likelihood that the call for an IG will become official in 2022, Rep. Kowalko said, when a still-evolving draft of a bill may be filed and then circulated to seek co-sponsors. The representative is working with Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark, to make it happen, and “certainly, the devil is in the details because we have gone over it with a fine-toothed comb to create the mechanics that could be used to ensure independence.”
If developed, Rep. Kowalko said, an IG “would create an independent agency with a full-time, professional staff to look into fraud, waste and mismanagement, and not just accusations of financial wrongdoing or criminal conduct,” such as in the auditor’s case.
“In addition to fraud and corruption, IG management audits can help to determine if agencies are properly fulfilling their purpose, including issues such as proper enforcement of environmental and health laws and regulations. An IG would also be able to conduct reviews of Delaware’s prisons, such as the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, which has had two independent reports on it after (a deadly inmate uprising in 2017),” he added.
“An IG would be able to follow up on those reports and put pressure on the agencies to change, unlike one-off reports by ad hoc commissions or other bodies.”
Once a bill advocating for an IG is filed, it will be circulated in an attempt to add co-sponsors before being assigned to a Senate or House committee for a hearing. Whether the bill is introduced in the House or Senate will be determined later, Rep. Kowalko said.
When presented, the bill will cover state agencies and all state-funded entities. General Assembly members and police could be exempt from the proposed legislation.
While the potential cost of an IG office is yet to be determined, the goal is to “create an office that’s appropriately staffed to function at a maximum capacity that will save taxpayers money in the long run.”
Rep. Kowalko said a fiscal note would be provided with the bill to quantify the office’s cost.
The current push for an inspector general isn’t the first one. An 2007 attempt to create an IG office — at a proposed cost of $900,000 — failed, despite passing unanimously in the House of Representatives. House Bill 155 met its demise in the Senate.
The bill’s synopsis read: “This Act establishes the Office of the State Inspector General, who will have the responsibility to investigate state employees and state agencies for waste, fraud, abuse and corruption, make reports to the Governor and refer to the Attorney General the report findings for possible prosecution.”
Two bills attempting to establish a health care inspector general in the Division of Public Health were unsuccessful in 2007, as well.
Nick Wasileski, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government (DelCOG), is in support of an IG. Besides providing a safe haven for whistleblowers reporting possible fraud or mismanagement, he said, potential Freedom of Information Act violations could be investigated, and questions like, “Why does Delaware experience chronic water problems that are costing us millions in remediation and untold health problems?” could be answered.
“The IG’s office could recommend changes to policies and procedures,” he added.
Prior to COVID-19, Mr. Wasileski said, DelCOG gave five or six well-received presentations about the role of an inspector general to groups around the state, including, among others, the Civic League for New Castle County, Network Delaware, the Sussex Health and Environmental Network and the Delaware Environmental Summit.
According to DelCOG Vice President Keith Steck, “I believe all large organizations have room to improve their operations, regardless whether they are private corporations, nonprofits or government agencies. As to what extent (that) waste, fraud, abuse — and I’ll add mismanagement — exists anywhere is a reflection of how strong or weak the rules are. If laws, regulations and internal controls are weak, there’s a greater likelihood that there are problems, especially in large organizations, like a major corporation or a state agency.”
When it comes to ethics and integrity, Mr. Steck said, “Oftentimes, organizational weaknesses are only realized when someone decides to exploit them to enrich themselves or otherwise take advantage. Things may be seemingly fine for a long time, then someone finds a weakness in the system and can’t resist temptation. Then, there’s a serious problem.
“Are there problems in Delaware agencies? No doubt, but I don’t necessarily believe Delaware’s government is worse than other states’. But there seems to be more and more reports of problems happening, at least being made public.”
The public’s level of trust in the government has been dwindling for years, he believes.
“But I also believe the level of trust corresponds to an overall decline in the level of trust of all organizations and institutions,” he said.
“You read and hear about all kinds of scams and scandals. The news constantly reports on stories that involve the erosion of trust, whether it’s a company gouging the public on the price of a scarce item or a politician abusing his or her authority or the discovery that large corporations have … known for years that their practices or products have damaged the environment and/or people’s health.
“So while trust in government has gone down, it has to be considered, in the bigger context, that trust in everything has gone down.”
Pointing to issues with Connections and other private entities providing services to the state, DelCOG board of directors member John Flaherty said that, “Democracy works best when you have checks and balances to counteract the tendencies of government to paper over difficult issues. A case in point is how the state privatizes services and tries to disengage responsibility for how those services are delivered.
“An inspector general would be a check on how government tries to pawn off responsibility for how those services are delivered or, in some cases, not delivered.”
Support for an IG isn’t universal, however. Sam Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor at Delaware State University, said, “The calls for an IG Office are logical but unnecessary, as it would add more bloat without substantially improving state government.
“The 13 other states currently without an inspector general have found ways to operate effectively. Adopting (reforms regarding the auditor’s office), together with more engagement by executive agencies and the General Assembly alike, will ensure the transparency and accountability which Delaware citizens expect and deserve.”