COLUMBUS (Ohio Capital Journal) — Lawmakers are considering a plan to establish a county inspector general system in Ohio, with the hopes of rooting out corruption, theft and other administrative problems in local governments.
Ohio currently has a state inspector general’s office, which conducts investigations of state entities. House Bill 311, sponsored by Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, would allow for inspector general work at the county level. Greenspan is a former Cuyahoga County councilman who helped to establish an inspector general position there. He now advocates for there to be an inspector general role in the other 87 counties in Ohio.
Greenspan has been tinkering with the bill since introducing it last year. There are still questions as to what jurisdiction a county inspector general would follow, and the extent to which their work would have to comply with public records law. Seeing a need for independent investigators at the county level, Greenspan said he’s worked to craft the best program that would serve Ohio residents.
How it might work
If approved by the Ohio General Assembly, this new program would give counties flexibility for how they might approach bringing in a county inspector general (CIG).
Essentially, there would be two main options. A county could choose to establish a full-time CIG role, bearing the additional costs to fund the new office. Or, a county could choose to contract with the state office on a case-by-case basis if the need for an investigation arises; the county and state would then share in the cost of an investigation together.
What sorts of things might a CIG investigate? Under Greenspan’s latest draft of the bill, CIGs would look into criminal or administrative wrongdoing conducted by an official who is overseen by the county commissioners. An example could be the misappropriation of county money by a public employee.
This jurisdiction would leave out a variety of other entities, from school districts and land banks to county farm bureaus. A county board of elections, as another example, would not fall under a CIG’s purview. Though an elections office may receive county funding, it is primarily overseen by the Ohio Secretary of State.
The key component for any inspector general is independence. Under HB 311, the county commissioners have the power to establish and fund a CIG position. They would not, however, have much involvement with the CIG after that point. The bill would also create a new state commission tasked with hiring and overseeing the various CIGs around Ohio.
As Greenspan has pointed out, local officials should not be in charge of hiring a CIG, as they may end up being the subject of a later investigation themselves.
State IG supports this effort
State Inspector General Randall Meyer offered some perspective about his office’s work in testimony Wednesday to the House State and Local Government committee.
Meyer noted his office of eight investigators look into allegations of wrongdoing of state agencies, boards, commissions and anyone else conducting business with the state of Ohio. His office does not have jurisdiction to investigate anything at the county level, though that could change with the passage of HB 311.
An inspector general does not have prosecutorial authority. Instead, an IG conducts its work and then passes along information to other agencies with that authority. Meyer said it is important his investigators work closely with such agencies so that there are no “duplicative” efforts.
In fact, Meyer said, law enforcement agencies often welcome his office’s assistance because it has unique authority that those agencies do not have. As an example, IG investigators have authority to access any state building and record without a search warrant.
The only other inspector general in Ohio was also present Wednesday to shed light on his work. Mark Griffin has been the Cuyahoga County Inspector General since 2015.
“My office lives on tips,” Griffin said, describing that he too works regularly alongside law enforcement agencies.
He said good working relationships with the state auditor’s office, the U.S. Marshall’s and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office has allowed his office to conduct meaningful investigations.
IG work: public or private?
Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, a former county official from Southern Ohio, said Wednesday he can see the value in creating a CIG role. From his own experience as a county commissioner, he described that local prosecutors are oftentimes too busy with their regular work to be able to investigate government wrongdoing.
Stephens mentioned concerns related to public records and whether or not a CIG’s work could be kept private.
If county commissioners vote in public to have a specific official investigated, that could lead to unintended consequences.
“When the light is on them they may work to cover their tracks,” Stephens said, adding that the work should be “discreetly handled.”
It was suggested that county commissioners could discuss an impending investigation in private executive session. A subsequent resolution to contract with the state inspector general’s office could be worded generally without identifying the subject at hand.
Records are generally kept private while an investigation is carried out, and are made public only at the conclusion of an IG’s work.
Greenspan said he is concerned about damaging an official’s reputation if an investigation is levied against them but uncovers no wrongdoing. He wondered if a report could be kept private afterward if it turns up empty; such a provision could spur a public records dispute if enacted into law.
The point, Greenspan said in his initial testimony last year, was to not allow for “witchhunts.”
“If there’s nothing there,” he said, “there’s nothing there.”
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.