By Michael E. Miller
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I am referring, of course, to the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General and the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which were spawned seven years ago in a joint effort to root out corruption and the culture that causes it, but whose relationship disintegrated earlier this year.
At the November 30 meeting of the board of county commissioners, Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler will propose an ordinance separating the OIG from its ostensible overseers, the five members of the ethics commission who hire and fire the inspector general.
This is the culmination of a dispute that began when the chair of the ethics commission, Aventura real estate attorney Kerry Rosenthal, wrote a letter ordering Inspector General Christopher Mazzella to scale back his crime fighting. "You will need to refocus agency priorities; that is, to focus more on audit and audit-related tasks and move away from criminal investigations," read Rosenthal's July 1 missive, which I wrote about in this column. (In full disclosure, I worked as an OIG agent in 2001.) Rosenthal wrote that he found it "troubling" that the OIG was taking on crime, or as he put it "certain responsibilities traditionally reserved for law enforcement agencies," adding "I am at a loss to find the legal authority for the OIG to implement its mission in this manner."
This was stunning news. The OIG is popular among government reformers as well as with the county commission, which believes the agency has helped restore public confidence in the system.
But the 1997 ordinance creating the agency was vague about the OIG's powers to probe illegal activity. It states that "Where the Inspector General detects corruption or fraud, he or she shall notify the appropriate law enforcement agencies." Rosenthal interpreted that to mean that when the OIG uncovered a crime it should turn the matter over to cops or prosecutors.
Rosenthal was right about one thing: The OIG is not a police agency. Its agents carry badges but not guns, and they cannot arrest anyone. The office's mission is to root out "fraud, waste, mismanagement and abuse of power." The way the process has worked so far is that when OIG agents uncover criminal activity, they continue their probe in conjunction with the State Attorney's Office (SAO). If a subject must be arrested, police or SAO investigators are summoned for the task. No one was complaining about this arrangement -- not the OIG, not the SAO, not the county commission -- until Rosenthal wrote his letter.
"I saw there was a lot of contention there. The relationship between ethics and the inspector general had broken down," Carey-Shuler says. "Both are such important and major initiatives we have introduced, so I felt each body should be independent."
Carey-Shuler's proposal takes the OIG from under the auspices of the ethics commission. It creates instead a four-member committee made up of the state attorney, the public defender, the president of the Miami-Dade police chiefs association, and the chair of the ethics commission (a potential addition would be either the chief judge of the circuit court or the U.S. attorney) for the sole purpose of hiring and firing the inspector general. The IG would be appointed for four-year terms, at the end of which the committee could reappoint him or her. "No one person or commission should appoint him," Carey-Shuler says. "So that way he can look at anybody he wants to. He owes no one any favors."
She made sure that part was in black and white: "The Office of the Inspector General shall be sufficiently independent to assure that no interference or influence external to the Office shall adversely affect the independence and objectivity of the Inspector General," a draft of the legislation states.
The ordinance also addresses Rosenthal's unease about the OIG's role in criminal cases. "Where the Inspector General detects corruption or fraud, he or she shall notify the appropriate law enforcement agencies. Subsequent to notifying the appropriate law enforcement agency, the Inspector General may assist the law enforcement agency in concluding the investigation," it states.
Mazzella endorsed the proposed ordinance in a written statement. "Ultimately, Shuler's proposals eliminate any confusion about the role the IG is expected to play in this community."
Rosenthal declined to return phone calls, but in his July letter he wrote that he was motivated by concerns about Mazzella's accountability. Ethics executive director Robert Meyers concurred, telling me in July that he and Rosenthal talked about those concerns for at least six years. In fact it was Meyers who penned the letter, and Rosenthal simply signed it.
But clearly, much of what motivated the challenge to the IG's authority was a long-running feud between Meyers and Mazzella. The two simply don't get along. Mazzella refused to share information during ongoing investigations with Meyers and his staff of ethics investigators. Meyers resented that. Mazzella has said he shared intelligence when appropriate, but he obviously didn't trust Meyers. Meyers also accused Mazzella of poaching an ethics case from his territory. Meanwhile, the two branches used to share a combined $4.9 million budget, but this year Mazzella moved to separate them, leaving the ethics side with about a third of that total. The two agencies currently occupy the same floor of a downtown office building but have separate security codes on their doors.
Carey-Shuler is right to propose this reorganization. Nothing would be gained if the OIG halted its criminal investigations, and much would be lost. In addition, it doesn't make sense to have ethics commissioners, a group made up of lawyers and professors, attempt to oversee the IG. Under the proposed arrangement, active members of the criminal justice world would have the minimal oversight needed to hold the IG accountable. Beyond that, the IG will be left alone to do his job. And we all know there's plenty of work to do.