Howard auditor 'hot line' takes reports of fraud, abuse

Michael Mershon can get pretty stirred up about lighting. He's been working in the business for more than 30 years, most of that time in Maryland, and said he's seen local governments waste millions of dollars on lighting jobs through contract practices that were sloppy, or worse.

He was worked up enough early last year to file a complaint with the Howard County auditor, detailing how companies he was representing were prevented from bidding against a large lighting company for a job on a county athletic field.

The auditor's office looked into it, found no wrongdoing, made recommendations for changed bid procedures and closed the case.

It was one of 17 reports filed with the auditor since the county established the online "hot line" in November 2008 to receive claims of "fraud, waste and abuse," as the website puts it, offering definitions of what each of these terms means.

When the link was established, then-County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson said the program was "an opportunity to increase accountability and transparency in county government."

At the time, at least four other Maryland jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties — had similar hot lines.

In Howard, some complaints have been less serious than others — one Columbia homeowner reported two neighbors were not cleaning leaves off their lawns — but in no case has the county found wrongdoing by a public employee or elected official.

"We've never actually identified fraud," said the county auditor, Craig Glendenning, who in September took over the department that had been run by Haskell N. Arnold.

Arnold was in office when the whistle-blower program began. Under Glendenning, the office has referred two reports from the hot line to other agencies and closed an investigation that found County Executive Ken Ulman's administration followed proper procedure in awarding a contract to a company that installed a parking meter system in Ellicott City.

Glendenning acknowledges the county could do a better job publicizing the hot line, and as the county website undergoes the process of being updated, he's asked that the link be put on the home page or in some other prominent place.

As it is, to find the link you have to know that the auditor works under the auspices of the County Council, then click on the council link — cc.howardcountymd.gov — and find the listing for auditor in a menu on the right side of the page. Once there, another link says "Report Fraud."

The site notes that reports may be made anonymously, and that the program considers claims by county residents, employees or contractors.

Mershon, who lives in Anne Arundel County, fits the latter category, as he has worked both as a representative of lighting manufacturers and installation contractors.

He filed his report last January, listing a loss of more than $1 million he said the county incurred as a result of improper practices by the Department of Recreation and Parks. Citing lighting work at Western Regional Park and Cedar Lane Park, Mershon contended that the agency arranged to do business solely with one firm, even after competitive bidding on a job was completed and called for another company's equipment. The auditor found no reasons for "sole sourcing," as it's called, and recommended the county change that practice. But it found no wrongdoing.

"They just didn't want to find it," said Mershon, who claims he's seen an array of practices in lighting contracts that are either wasteful or fraudulent in several counties, including Howard, Anne Arundel. Montgomery and Baltimore County.

He said he's happy that the auditor's office paid attention to his claim, but he's not satisfied with the outcome, and he questioned whether the auditor's staff knows enough about the lighting business to conduct a thorough investigation.

In another case, Sara Arditti, the co-owner of the Still Life Gallery in Ellicott City, said she was pleased Glendenning contacted her personally to talk to her about her claim of impropriety surrounding the Streetline company's contract to install a new parking meter system on Main Street and in nearby parking lots.

Otherwise, though, Arditti declined to say anything about the auditor finding the county "followed proper procedures" for sealed bids.

Three claims of fraud involving people using services of the Department of Housing and Community Development have been referred to that agency. Tom Carbo, agency director, said confidentiality rules bar him from releasing information about specific cases — but he said no complaints have ever been taken to civil or criminal court.

The most extensive complaint to date was brought against Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald in September 2011 by a person who identified themselves as a "county employee," but otherwise remained anonymous.

In seven typewritten pages, the complaint accused Fitzgerald of yelling at employees, using county cars for personal business and mismanagement of various forms.

The auditor's nine-page response, completed last June, makes clear that Fitzgerald and his employees work for the state, not the county, and the county has no disciplinary authority it could apply. However, the report said the auditor could consider matters that had to do with the agency budget, which the county controls, and anything that could potentially result in suits against the agency for actions taken in enforcing law, for which the county would be liable.

That left five specific claims from a list of 21: traffic stops of employees, inadequate staffing at the Circuit Court, personal use of county cars, improper use of Homeland Security grants and hiring or promoting employees who didn't meet qualifications.

The report outlines how the auditor examined each claim, concluding that "we found no indication of impropriety by the Sheriff."

Fitzgerald said this week that several representatives of the auditor's office talked with him about the claims, asking "pointed, explicit questions." He said he was taken aback by some of the allegations, but was "pleased with the outcome."

Other claims present a grab-bag of issues: an anonymous report of a new band saw sitting unused for years in a county warehouse; a woman reporting a bounced check; a report of a lost wallet. A Columbia man who complained about the condition of some neighbors' yards acknowledged that he was not sure the web link was the right place for his report, and indeed the matter was referred to the Village of Oakland Mills.

The gentleman was evidently making an effort to "Choose Civility" with his neighbors, as the county mantra goes: "I do not know whom to contact to have this corrected without hurting their feelings."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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