Delaware Senate leader supports creation of inspector general's office

Amy Cherry // WDEL

State Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola supports the creation of an inspector general's office in Delaware.

Sokola told WDEL he's working with advocates from the Delaware Coalition for Open Government (DelCOG) on the issue.

"I think it would be a good first step," said Sokola. "Many states have these, and they seem to have pretty good track record in most states."

DelCOG President Nick Wasileski said the Office of an Inspector General (IG) is needed to eliminate partisan politics and special interest influence. He pointed to the dismantling of the Rodney Square bus hub and the demolition of the General Motors plant on Boxwood Road, which has since become a massive Amazon fulfillment center.

"It seems like every few months, some issue comes up that really begs the question why isn't somebody digging into this, looking into this, and for whatever reason it is not, and whether it's the [state] agency failing to act, to look at a complaint about its own operation...or whether it's some other issue that's come up that people feel like the only real way to do it is to have an independent organization look at it, and that's what an IG is, essentially, when structures right...they would be able to go in and have the authority to look at it, and nobody could really stop it from being examined, investigated," said DelCOG Vice President Keith Steck.

The indictment of Auditor Kathy McGuiness on felony charges of witness intimidation, theft, and official misconduct has renewed the group's charge, DelCOG said.

"I don't know what else it would take for them to seriously consider this and look into it," said Steck. "It's shocking because it is that office, it's also shocking because of what the allegations's an embarrassment, and again, if part of this is the result of whistleblowers bringing this to the attention of the attorney general's office, but then suffering as a result of it, that's really unfortunate," said Steck. "The IG can be a different vehicle for people bringing issues--and it wouldn't be just employees--it could be contractors because the state, like lots of government entities, state agencies, they contract with private companies to provide services, so those companies would be subject to it, and the employees--subcontractors--would likewise be subject to [it]."

According to the Association of Inspectors General, 34 states have established this position. In Pennsylvania, it's a state position. In Maryland, an inspector general is on the county or municipal level. DelCOG is advocating that Delaware's inspector general be a statewide, appointed position. DelCOG envisions the inspector general not just investigating possible illegal activity, but also mismanagement and ethical issues.

"They all essentially have the same function--that is oversight and investigation--of state agencies for fraud, and corruption, and mismanagement," said Wasileski. "An inspector general can look at policies or procedures which are poor or not followed, and see if there is mismanagement by state officers, and mismanagement may not rise to the level of a crime...the inspector general could look at things from a perspective of mismanagement, which they're not following their policies or procedures, or they've just overstepped their boundaries, or they're just not doing their job."

Steck said neither the auditor's office nor the attorney general's office have the

capacity to do some of this work.

Steck, who's retired from the Government Accountability Office and worked in the IG's office, believes the office's creation in Delaware would have bipartisan support.

"A number of people, state legislators...mixed Dems, Republicans, no one has objected to the idea. In fact, several have said that they think it's a very good idea," Steck said.

Right now, Sokola said he's soliciting feedback for possible legislation that could come when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Such a bill would have a fiscal note attached to it, though, at this point, it's unclear how much creation of the office would cost. Setting up the office would require the inspector general's position, as well as independent attorney, and some staff along with office space.

"There’s a little bit of budgetary effect, but there’s potential for budgetary savings too," Sokola said.

Wasileski said the state stands to save money by creating the office.

"There's a history of inspectors general saving more money than the cost of running the office," he said.

But costs aside, Steck added there's an intangible benefit to the office's creation too.

"The comfort that the public would have in knowing that there is a watchdog out there, looking out for their interests, that the public can go to them and say, 'I have a concern about this.'"

John Flaherty, a DelCOG board member, hearkened back to the last time the state saw legislation to create an inspector general's office. The bill was sponsored by then-Rep. Bill Oberle. Flaherty believes, this time, they will see success.

"What advanced that issue in 2007 was then-Governor Minner taking a secret trip to Quebec paid for by a developer, who got in trouble with the NKS controversy in the ensuing years. The bill passed the House fairly easily, but got killed in the Senate," he said "So it's going to be a tough road to home, but certainly, these scandals help bring the focus to the need for an inspector general."

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