The government needs more oversight, not less.
Inspector General Amy Kurland faced a skeptical City Council at a hearing Monday as she attempted to justify her $1.3 million budget for next year.
It seems like a no-brainer. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), charged with rooting out fraud and corruption in city government, has been a major success story since Mayor Nutter appointed Kurland to head the office in December 2007. According to its 2009 report, the OIG saved Philadelphia $4.2 million last year—and that’s not including $3.4 million in uncashed checks to the city from the Department of Defense that Kurland’s investigators recently discovered.
That’s $7.6 million in savings, almost six times the OIG’s budget.
But with the city perpetually buried in red ink, Council wants to squeeze whatever they can out of every single department. Understandably so, but in the case of the OIG penny pinching may be counter-productive. Worse, while Nutter talks about expanding the OIG’s authority, Council is considering curtailing it and seemed to insinuate that the office could be folded inside the City Controller’s authority.
“It sounds a lot like the City Controller. How is what you do different from what an elected office already does?” Councilman-At-Large Bill Green asked Kurland.
The OIG may not be a household name around Philadelphia, but its investigators have been involved in a number of high-profile cases. Last year, the office investigated the disgraced Department of Human Services (DHS), under whose supervision 14-year-old Danieal Kelly died of starvation and neglect in 2006. As a result of the OIG’s work, three DHS workers (unrelated to the Kelly case) have resigned or been terminated for fraud; more investigations are under way; and the OIG has made specific and actionable recommendations to DHS to improve department ethics, training, supervision and record-keeping.
Furthermore, it was the OIG that discovered the fraud and misconduct that led to the firing of Joseph Russo and the resignation of Barry Mescolotto from the reviled Board of Revision of Taxes.
In total, OIG investigations have led to the firing or suspension of 45 city employees as well as 24 criminal investigations last year. “That proves that we are focusing on serious cases and have the ability to satisfy prosecutors,” Kurland told Council. “Our recommendations are being followed and upheld by the departments.”
That’s right—it’s a city office that is doing its job well, holding city employees accountable and saving a big pile of money at the same time. Nutter is so impressed with Kurland’s work that he proposed making the OIG a fully independent body with the expanded mission of investigating the Row Offices and City Council, which currently lie outside the OIG’s jurisdiction.
Watchdog groups support the measure. “The Committee of Seventy supports an independent Inspector General who has jurisdiction over the whole government. It sends a bad message if one part of city government is excluded,” says President Zack Stalberg.
Council however, proposed legislation last week that would continue to exclude themselves from OIG’s jurisdiction.
At Monday’s hearing, Council members, led by Bill Green, grilled Kurland, focusing mostly on two issues: Whether the OIG’s reported savings numbers are reliable, and whether the office duplicates work done by the City Controller.
Green questioned whether the $3.2 million in salary savings from fired employees are really savings because most of the positions would be replaced. “I’m confused on savings,” the councilman said. “If we’ve cut the departments to the bone, there’s some kind of disconnect in these numbers . . . these positions are being filled.”
The $3.2 million is based on two years of salary for the terminated positions. Kurland pointed out that while it is impossible to accurately quantify the money saved because some positions are refilled quickly and others aren’t, she considered the two-year figure to be conservative. In comparison, the federal government calculates savings by adding the expected lifetime salary of the fired employee plus pension.
“We’re living in the real world. You don’t get more real than Philly,” Green continued. “It’s inaccurate to say we’ve saved $3.2 million. Why did the Inspector General provide an inaccurate report?”
“It’s an estimate, sir,” Kurland replied.
“Would you say it’s a wildly inaccurate estimate?” Green asked.
“It’s a conservative estimate,” the Inspector General answered.
Green and Councilman-At-Large William K. Greenlee also hammered the point that the OIG’s function of maintaining ethics and honesty in city government also falls under the City Controller’s job description. Kurland acknowledged that their missions overlap but emphasized that the Controller’s Office is more concerned with big-picture auditing and efficiency improvements. “The Inspector General conducts investigations on individual misconduct,” she said.
At least we can all hold hands and agree: $3.3 million is not reliable. Maybe it’s $10 million! Maybe it’s two dollars. Who knows.
A number of investigative and watchdog bodies actually operate inside city government. Each office has its limitations, however, leaving oversight on certain areas of government thin to nonexistent. Specifically, City Council manages to largely escape scrutiny.
If only this website had been available years ago; we wouldn’t be in this property-values mess. Maybe this can also set straight the Parking Authority, City Council, Charter School administrators, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace