Two Sets of Rules

Originally Published in the Frederick News-Post

Marta Hummel Mossburg Mar 7, 2012

Read news headlines and it is easy to discern that the rules that apply to the rest of us often bypass those in power.

Witness Jon Corzine, the former head of MF Global, whose résumé? also includes a stint as governor of New Jersey and a U.S. senator. The firm is being investigated amid allegations it used client money to cover massive trading losses -- a major infraction. But he has not been charged so far. Another prime example is that members of Congress routinely become fabulously wealthy while in office and earn investment returns much higher than the rest of us.

Marylanders know that two sets of rules apply to state politics, too. The measly censure of Ulysses Currie for hiding the fact that he received $250,000 from Shoppers Food Warehouse while voting on legislation favorable to the company is one example. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Robert Garagiola admitted he did not disclose outside income from two different firms as required on legislative ethics forms. The only reason the information came out is that a rival in the 6th Congressional District race alerted the media.

And then there is the constant stream of audits of state agencies by the Department of Legislative Services, which highlights poor management, waste and fraud on a regular basis, to no avail, as the frequent repeat findings reveal.

I've written about this issue many times before, most recently in December in "Toothless audits." And legislators thankfully are taking notice this session about the chronic and expensive missteps totaling millions at a time when the state faces a $1.1 billion deficit.

Delegate Gail Bates, a Howard County Republican and a certified public accountant, sponsored legislation to make it possible to cut the budget by 5 percent of those agencies with three or more repeat findings against them. This is overly generous, in my opinion, but a good first step to adding teeth to the reports, which good or bad have as much influence as Republicans in Baltimore city.

According to the Office of Legislative Audits, 38 state agencies have three or more repeat findings. Three -- the Maryland State Department of Education; University of Maryland, Baltimore; and the Office of the State Treasurer -- have eight. Obviously, they did not feel the pressure to reform their policies and practices. And these are not small infractions.

Some of the repeat issues at the State Department of Education, for example, include that the agency paid vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars prior to contracts being approved and that it paid vendors more than $1 million without evidence work was complete. The last finding was the subject of three audits.

As Bates said, "What's the point of doing the audit if you're not going to fix the problem?" If passed, her legislation, HB 843, as well as two other bills sponsored by Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County, SB 615 and 617, mean state agencies will finally start to be held accountable to taxpayers -- the same ones repeatedly told that crises out of anyone's control are responsible for the $1.1 billion deficit.