Friday, January 14, 2011

Who are our city's official "watchdogs"?

As a part of my job, I interact heavily with the Inspector General community, which makes sense considering I spent close to ten years in the D.C. area where there are hundreds of Inspector General agencies policing federal, municipal, and quasi-government agencies. Last November, at the Assn. of Inspectors General annual conference, I had the pleasure to meet and talk to Amy Kurland, Philadelphia Inspector General.

After talking to IG Kurland, a former US Attorney with experience in prosecuting government corruption; I came to the conclusion that while I have faith in her as a competent, fair Inspector General; I have little faith in the system that she operates within.

The Philadelphia Inspector General's Office is a small, yet professionally run office in the executive branch of city government (under the Mayor). While she operates an independent office, with her own staff and offsite location; she has been shot down by city council on requests to have the level of authority necessary to investigate the issues that citizens observe with disgust on a daily basis. The recent budget crisis, which hit the media at the same time as public scandals within the Housing Authority, Sheriff's Office, Clerk of Quarter Sessions, and other agencies have brought focus on how government is run and our tax dollars are spent.

So naturally, I want to know why city hall is not lining up behind the Inspector General (an office formerly held by D.A. Seth Williams) to clean up the waste, fraud, and abuse of our public funds. Not surprisingly, I found that there are redundant and poorly operated agencies taking city funding while our Council blocks IG Kurland from having the authority she needs.

A quick trip to tells an interesting tale. First, let's look at the city website's description of the Philadelphia Office of the Inspector General"

"The mission of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is to enhance the public confidence in the integrity of the City government by rooting out corruption, fraud, misconduct, waste and mismanagement. The OIG is the watchdog for the taxpayers of the city. The OIG has jurisdiction to conduct investigations and audits over all departments, agencies, commissions and boards under the Mayor's jurisdiction, as well as in contracts with individuals or companies receiving City funds and doing business with the City. The OIG also provides investigative expertise to any agency or authority requesting assistance."

This makes perfect sense and is a common description of an Inspector General, a time-tested mechanism for public oversight and investigation. However, in 2005, city hall passed a charter and has also been operating the Philadelphia Ethics Board, which is described on the city website as:

"The new Ethics Board has investigative and enforcement powers and jurisdiction over all of city government, which works to assure that all city officials and workers are held accountable to the same high standards. To ensure that everyone knows where the boundaries of acceptable conduct are, the Board is responsible for providing guidance and education on the ethics rules to the entire city workforce as well as to city vendors."

Sounds like they do the same thing, eh? Even more disturbing is that the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which has been rocked with scandal over public funds being used to settle Director Greene's sexual harassment complaints and numerous racially-charged remarks by board chair John Street (yes, the fmr Mayor whose aides fell to corruption charges while the FBI was building a case on him); has it's OWN Inspector General's Office which has an almost identical description as the aforementioned offices. Where was their report about the $900K allocated to settle the Greene complaints before the story broke in the media?

My point is, maybe if we wanted to root out municipal waste; we could consolidate the agencies charged with investigating it.

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