Move to create Delaware inspector general post gains momentum

Delaware Live | by Charlie Megginson

As calls mount for the creation of a statewide inspector general’s office in Delaware, one Newark lawmaker is drafting legislation to do just that.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, will introduce legislation in early 2022 to set the framework for the establishment of the new office, which would be tasked with investigating instances of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement within the state government.

The office would also seek to root out inefficiencies within government and streamline processes and practices to save taxpayers money.

The bill, if passed, will authorize the creation of the office and allocate funding for salaries, office space and other start-up expenses.

Kowalko said he expects that the office would require an annual budget of around $2 million to meet its goals.

Opponents say that cost is too much to ask of taxpayers, especially when the state already has an auditor of accounts to investigate financial mismanagement and abuse.

But with the indictment of State Auditor Kathy McGuiness on corruption charges and multiple instances of shady dealings and perceived cover-ups within the state government, Kowalko and others believe now is the time to act in the interest of transparency.

Some would like to see what exactly ends up in the bill.

“The concept of an office of inspector general, when we’ve seen so much bad behavior on the part of Democrats recently, would be a good thing potentially,” said Delaware Republican Party chairwoman Jane Brady. “But I would have to see the language of the bill and how they intend for it to work before I could indicate whether I would support it or not.”

This wouldn’t be the legislature’s first attempt to create an inspector general’s office.

Kowalko co-sponsored similar legislation in 2007 brought forth by then-Rep. Bill Oberle, R-Newark. That bill overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives but when it arrived in the Senate, it was tabled, never receiving a vote.

“I’ve noticed situations recently, like the situation with the auditor, the situation with Connections, even questions raised about asbestos removal at that Fisker site,” Kowalko said in an interview with Delaware LIVE News. “There seems to be no government oversight.”

The “situation with Connections” refers to a News Journal/Delaware Online report which found that the state government, for years, sought to obscure Connections’ improper billing of federal programs and record-keeping for narcotics. That mismanagement and lack of oversight led to years of lawsuits and a $15 million settlement.

The questions surrounding asbestos removal at the former Boxwood Road Fisker/GM manufacturing facility in Newport revolve around demolition workers having been subject to unsafe working conditions while removing asbestos because the contractor failed to take action on violations of emission standards.

Kowalko believes that the establishment of an inspector general’s office would force some state agencies to be more transparent and open about their policies and practices.

Whistleblower complaints would be investigated by the inspector general’s office and remediation methods would be advised, or in instances of criminal wrongdoing, the inspector general would hand cases off to the attorney general for prosecution.

But the office doesn’t necessarily have to just be a “gotcha agency,” Kowalko said.

“An inspector general’s office is going to give us an opportunity to look at agencies where they may be able to be improve their performance,” he said.

Claire Snyder-Hall, executive director of open-government group Common Cause of Delaware, said that an inspector general’s office would serve as an impartial watchdog to sniff out fraud, corruption, mismanagement, and malfeasance on behalf of the public.

Common Cause’s position is that an inspector general should be appointed with a set term, rather than being an elected office, because they “should be someone who has the qualifications and independence to do the job,” Snyder-Hall said. “The position should not be a stepping-stone for a political careerist.”

Kowalko said that those who oppose the creation of an inspector general’s office often express concern about the cost and necessity of establishing a new state agency.

“Oh, no, we can’t create this because we don’t want to create another agency,” he said, alluding to the predominant argument against the proposal. “Well, if you run through a myriad of the agencies that exist now — whether it’s the auditor’s office, the Department of Education or any of the others — and you say that we can’t afford to have oversight on them to protect against fraud, waste or mismanagement, everyone knows that those factors cost money.”

Kowalko argued that failures of oversight cost taxpayers “much, much more” than the roughly $2 million per year an inspector general’s office would.

Dr. David Redlawsk, chair of the political science and international relations department at the University of Delaware, said in an interview that claims like that “are hard to be certain about.”

“It costs money to establish the office, it costs money to hire the right kind of staff and to pursue what needs to be pursued,” Redlawsk said. “Some would argue that the auditor of accounts should be doing at least some of this kind of work.”

He said that the auditor’s job is to seek out financial waste, fraud and abuse within the state government and that an argument could be made that Delaware already has an office that, with the right checks, could have a similar effect of an inspector general’s office.

The question then becomes, “who’s watching the watchers,” Redlawsk said. “As we see this situation, what happens when there are problems in the auditor’s office?”

Ultimately, he said, an inspector general’s office can only be effective if it is “truly independent.”

“Someone has to appoint the inspector general, presumably the governor with approval at the Senate or something of that nature,” Redlawsk said. “But that office has to have true independence to look anywhere.”

He pointed to the April and May 2020 dismissals of five federal inspectors general during the Trump Administration after the officials took actions displeasurable to the president.

A good way to avoid that type of scenario would be “to make the position only removable in cases of clear malfeasance or misfeasance of office,” Redlawsk said. “In other words, rather than serving at the governor’s pleasure, which most appointed officials do, there would need to be, I think, a fixed term for such an office to create that independence.”

Kowalko said that while he hasn’t hammered out the details definitively, he envisions a scenario where the governor would nominate an individual for the job and that individual would be confirmed by the legislature.

“We’re trying to make it as independent as we can,” Kowalko said. “It won’t be elected — I can guarantee you that. We would seek to distill that process by limiting the governor’s involvement to that of nominating the individual.”

Ensuring that the governor doesn’t have the authority to remove an inspector general at-will is essential to the position’s objectives because, Kowalko said, “I don’t think the governor’s office itself would be exempt from the scrutiny of an inspector general.”

Kowalko and others are working with the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, a watchdog group that advocates for transparency in state government.

The Coalition for Open Government has been researching and advocating for the creation of an independent inspector general’s office for years, said Nick Wasileski, the group’s president.

“Inspectors general save money by identifying waste and finding ways to correct it,” Wasileski said. “They also are an office that — the very fact that they exist would put agency management on notice that there’s somebody that’s now watching you, dedicated to watching you. And I think that’s really important.”

The office could increase transparency in state government by expediting freedom of information requests and simply by virtue of government officials knowing their actions are being scrutinized.

“They might think twice about acting improperly if they know somebody is watching,” Wasileski said.

Wasileski said that a truly independent inspector general would save the state far more money than whatever costs are associated with creating and supporting the office.

He pointed to the $24 billion “Big Dig” project in Boston as an example of an inspector general saving taxpayer dollars. The Massachusetts Inspector General recovered hundreds of millions of dollars from contractors who defrauded the state government.

Wasileski said that he believes that members of the General Assembly realize that oversight of state agencies would be beneficial for good governance.

“I think that the General Assembly will give this deep consideration and hopefully, in the near future, approval,” he said. “Now, whether that comes in 2022 or 2023, I can’t answer that question. But the very fact that Sen. Sokola, who is the president pro tempore of the Senate, supports this office, I think is an excellent sign.”

According to a report from WDEL, Sokola, D-Newark, said in November that he thinks “it would be a good first step. Many states have these, and they seem to have a pretty good track record in most states.”

One thing Kowalko said he would like an inspector general to investigate is the financial relief and assistance offered to large companies.

“We’ve been almost criminal in the way we gave $4.3 million to Amazon — Amazon pays no taxes anyway, we’re giving them taxpayer money — we gave JP Morgan $10 million when they declared $34 billion in profits.”

Kowalko hopes to file the legislation in January, but he noted that he believes that it will face opposition because of one until-recently highly regarded phenomenon: “the Delaware way.”

“The Delaware way — years ago — may have been something to look at as an improvement for government, but it has deteriorated and it’s not just partisanship. The Delaware way has become almost a system of the anointing of various people moving up the ladder to various jobs, regardless of whether they are qualified or not.”

“Quite frankly the Delaware way, in my mind, is the system of well-heeled lobbyists, corporations, businesses, entities and individuals who have more access than the general public do,” Kowalko said. “That’s where the opposition is going to come from.”

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