September 25, 2020
At a meeting on September 24, the Cook County Board approved changes in the operations of the County’s Inspector General’s Office, including recommendations made by the Civic Federation to improve public understanding of the office’s reports.
Among other changes, the amendments to the ordinance governing the Office of the Independent Inspector General require that responses from agencies be included in public reports about investigations into waste and mismanagement. Longtime Inspector General Patrick Blanchard praised the change during a meeting of the County’s Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee on September 23.
The amendments were passed by the County Board as Mr. Blanchard was reappointed to serve for two more years while it seeks a successor. Mr. Blanchard has been Inspector General since 2008, and his second six-year term was set to expire in October 2020. One of the changes to the Inspector General ordinance allows for a two-year reappointment until a successor is named. Other amendments require that the search for a replacement begin at least eight months before an anticipated vacancy and that the Inspector General has an advanced degree in law, accounting, public administration or other relevant field.
The Inspector General’s Office is authorized to conduct investigations into complaints of corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, unlawful political discrimination and misconduct in County government. While reports involving individual misconduct or illegality are subject to confidentiality provisions, the Inspector General is specifically allowed to issue public statements about investigations concerning inefficient or wasteful management. These kinds of investigations, which are similar to program audits, may involve complicated financial issues that are disputed by the agency under review. However, there has been no requirement that the findings be shared with agencies before publication or that any responses be included in the Inspector General’s published report.
In contrast, rules of the City of Chicago’s Inspector General’s Office require its Audit and Program Review Section to send their reports to agency management and invite them to submit a written response to be included in the final, published report. The Illinois Auditor General is also required to include in final audit reports any statement of explanation or rebuttal submitted by the audited agency.
The Civic Federation’s November 2019 recommendation followed a widely publicized report by the Inspector General in June of that year that was highly critical of the financial practices of CountyCare, the Medicaid managed care plan run by the County’s public health system. Cook County Health disputed the findings but did not provide a formal rebuttal until three months later. Health system officials said that they were caught off guard by the Inspector General’s report and that it damaged the system’s reputation.
To help avoid such disputes, the Federation recommended that agencies be provided with advance copies of the findings of audit-like investigations and given the opportunity to submit written responses to be included in the final published report. Agency responses can promote public understanding and avoid confusion by providing context and explanation of operational and financial issues. County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office subsequently incorporated the Federation’s recommendation into an amendment to the Inspector General ordinance. The Federation testified in favor of the amendment at a County Board meeting in December 2019. Consideration of the measure was deferred until this month, when it was included in the revised amendment that was just approved.
Mr. Blanchard initially criticized the Federation’s recommendation on the grounds that it could hinder his investigations. However, in praising the change on September 23 he said it would improve the Inspector General ordinance and was in line with the standards of some other audit and inspector general offices.