Thursday, November 15, 2018

Baltimore Wasted $170K from Lead Paint Fines on Gifts, Travel

An investigative report alleges that the Baltimore Health Department
misappropriated $170,000 in public funds on gifts, travel
and promotional goods for department employees. 

An investigation by the Baltimore inspector general found that the Baltimore Health Department allegedly wasted $170,000 that it raised from lead paint violation penalties on parties, gifts, and travel for staff over the course of two years.

A summary of the investigation was released Wednesday and alleges that $170,000, about half of the funds spend in 2017 and 2018, were spent on excessive travel for the department managers, parties and gifts for staff, and promotional gifts that went unused. The investigation also found that the Baltimore Health Department overcharged attorneys for access to documents to use in lead paint court cases on behalf of lead poisoning victims.

City officials interviewed by the inspector general gave different opinions on how the money generated from penalties should be spent. One official said that the money should only be used for fighting lead poisoning, while another said the money was free to be used for other efforts. 

At the center of the investigation, there seems to be a misunderstanding as to whether the money was considered private funds or public property. One former department executive was recorded in the report as saying the money was raised from "bad landlords" and "it is not city money".

In a statement, the Health Department acknowledged that it had a poor system for keeping track of inventory, but it takes serious issue with the classification of expenditures in the lead fines and fees account as waste. Further, the Health Department said that using the money to buy promotional material was a proper use of funds because they raised awareness of lead poisoning prevention services.

However, the inspector general said that the Baltimore Health Department only stopped ordering promotional items after investigators became aware of how much they already had. Photographs from the investigation show boxes piled high on shelves and stashed in filing cabinets.

"They weren't stopping. It isn't like they were using what they had. It was box after box after box," Isabel Mercedes Cumming, Baltimore Inspector General, said in a recent press release.

Some questionable spending in the report include:
  • Holiday parties and meetings that reportedly cost thousands of dollars.
  • Office snacks including $200 spent on tea and $150 spent on honey.
  • Giveaway items that totaled $120,000. Investigators found stashes of unused promotional items such as 1,200 water bottles, 1,100 earbuds, and 4,500 pens. Many of these items were damaged and unusable.
  • Two business trips that totaled $10,685. Two officials from the Baltimore Health Department traveled to a conference in California and then another conference in New Orleans. In New Orleans, the conference ended on a Thursday afternoon but officials stayed an extra day and used money from the lead fund for their accommodations. 
Baltimore's budget management office, who has been called into question since the investigation broke, iterated a disconnect between the agency's understanding of its lead fund and the public's understand of its lead fund. in In a written response to the inspector general, the office stated that employees of agencies with "special funds" sometimes come to the false conclusion that the money can be spent "as they see fit". 

The budget management office said that it recommends closing the fund containing lead paint violation fines and putting all "special funds" into a general fund. The office also recommends that the Health Department's anti-lead efforts should now be funded through the regular budget.

Beyond questionable spending, Baltimore investigators are concerned over the health department's handling of records. Investigators found that the department was overcharging for access to its records including an unlawful $100 "rush fee".

The Baltimore Health Department maintains medical records on children with elevated blood-lead levels as well as environmental safety records. These records are usually accessed in cases where attorneys are linking lead poisoning cases to a specific address- often on behalf of the lead poisoning victims.

The Baltimore Health Department had been warned multiple times since 2015 by the Baltimore Law Department to update its record request policies, but still had not done so by the time the investigation began.

It is uncertain whether legal action will precede against the Baltimore Health Department; however, there would be legal precedent as a similar case in New York City resulted in a lead paint lawsuit.  Still, from the investigation began last month, the former health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, has since left her position.

To read more about the investigation, visit the investigative report. To learn more about lead paint and how to get involved in this field, visit Zack Academy.

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