Bay to Bay News | by Joseph Edelen
The bipartisan effort to implement an Inspector General’s Office continued to progress Wednesday, passing in the House of Representatives’ Administration Committee.
House Bill 405, sponsored by Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, and Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek, would promote transparency by establishing an entity to oversee state agencies. Under the legislation, the office would be tasked with responsibilities like investigating the firms to determine if they have engaged in conduct that is harmful to public interest, as well as providing reports to the governor, attorney general and House and Senate lawmakers.
The bill also appoints the office to coordinate its findings with the agencies to make the proper corrections.
Lawmakers’ push to establish an Inspector General’s Office has been in the works for months, including previous legislation by Rep. Smith that received support from House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford; House Minority Whip Tim Dukes, R-Laurel; and Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown.
However, in April, Rep. Smith decided to forgo his bill and join Rep. Kowalko as a co-primary sponsor of HB 405.
Rep. Smith commended Rep. Kowalko for his proposal, stating that it is an example of bipartisanship that can be achieved in the chamber.
“I thought it was really cool that we were separately focused on similar problems,” he said. “At the end of the day, to me, the spirit of this bill is about public trust. For us, I think, when you look at the differences and when you look at the commonalities we have together, there’s good government transparency and the public trust.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, Administration Committee member and Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, expressed concern regarding how the duties of the Inspector General’s Office and the attorney general would affect each other. Further, he questioned what would happen to the investigative power of agencies such as the State Auditor’s Office should an IG be created.
Rep. Schwartzkopf was curious about when the attorney general would take over an investigation from the inspector general and if the implementation of an IG would revoke the authority of certain state offices. In response, Rep. Kowalko pointed out that the inspector general would work in collaboration with others.
Rep. Schwartzkopf said, despite his worries, he supports the bill. However, he added that, if created, the office should not have conflicting authority with that of other state investigators and that language within HB 405 should reflect how an Inspector General’s Office would affect jurisdictional responsibilities of other agencies.
Later Wednesday, Rep. Smith explained his understanding of how the IG would affect other jurisdictions, using the criminal case against State Auditor Kathy McGuiness as an example.
“It’s a workflow issue between agencies. The way it works is that this becomes the top of the funnel to be able to then funnel things to the agencies. For instance, if it is financial, it could be going to the AG or the auditor depending on what it is,” he said.
“To use a current example, if it’s something between two agencies that they think there’s either fraud or abuse, or the other is saying, ‘This is political,’ you have that independent agency at the top that does the independent investigation on its own.”
House Administration Committee Chair Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, asked Rep. Kowalko if he consulted the Attorney General’s Office regarding the issue of jurisdiction, but he said he did not. Both he and Rep. Smith assured the members they would contact that office and draft an amendment to clarify the responsibilities.
Rep. Dukes thanked both the bill’s sponsors, stating that HB 405 is one of the better pieces of legislation introduced this year.
Rep. Kowalko, who is retiring at the end of this legislative session after 16 years as an elected official, said the act represents the core values of what he believes a government should do for the individuals they represent.
“There is still a glimmer of hope for transparency and good government to exist even when ideologies clash. I’m very, very happy that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and my own side of the aisle have decided that we have got to have some kind of dependable, independent oversight of our own actions,” he said.
He added that establishing an inspector general is one of his top priorities before he leaves office, and he will do everything he can to ensure his bill’s passage.
“I would like my legacy to be in line with what I feel I’ve attempted to do, and that is to have a better government, a good government and, most importantly, an open and transparent government,” he said.
“It is so important to instill confidence in the public to guarantee that we’re doing what’s right for them. So transparency and good government go hand in hand. That’s what I’d like to have accomplished, and this bill does that.”
HB 405 will now head to the House for a full chamber vote and, if it passes there, will be sent to the Senate for consideration.