With the integrity of her administration under scrutiny over its handling of the death of Daniel Prude, Mayor Lovely Warren is taking her second stab in four years at giving the city’s ethics watchdog more teeth.
Warren has submitted legislation to the City Council to transform the existing Office of Public Integrity into a new Office of Inspector General. Under the measure, the director would be appointed to a fixed five-year term, have the authority to subpoena records, be barred from engaging in political activity, and could only be fired for malfeasance or misconduct.
Currently, the director serves at the pleasure of the mayor and cannot legally compel any city employees or vendors to cooperate with an investigation being conducted by his office.
If the mayor's proposed standards sound practical, it is perhaps because they are recommended best practices by the Association for Inspectors General, a national organization that issues guidelines to municipalities for setting ups such offices.
If they sound familiar, it is perhaps because they are almost a carbon copy of a proposal Warren pitched to the City Council in 2016, only to have lawmakers shoot it down in a rare display of muscle-flexing independence.
Council members at the time bristled at Warren’s recommendations for changes to the office from the outset. Carolee Conklin, then the head of the finance committee responsible for reviewing that proposal, said, “I’m not sure we need to fix something that’s not broken.”
The latest legislation comes as the Warren administration is under a microscope for its handling of the death of Prude. The state Attorney General is still examining the matter, and the City Council has launched its own independent investigation.
It also follows news that auditors with the state Comptroller’s Office found deficiencies in the city’s oversight of ethics compliance for its employees.
Of particular note, auditors discovered that about a third of city employees who are required to file annual financial disclosure forms detailing their personal business interests either filed them late or neglected to file them at all.
Auditors also cited the city, and the Office of Public Integrity specifically, for not cross-referencing those financial disclosures with payments to vendors the city contracts with as an extra layer of protection against potential conflicts of interest.
Asked about the mayor’s latest legislation, which was dated Tuesday, City Council President Loretta Scott said she had not read it and declined to comment until she had.
City Council member Mary Lupien said the legislation was an improvement over the current structure of the Office of Public Integrity, but questioned how effective the measure would be in ensuring true autonomy for the office and its director.
“We’re talking about an office that has the power to investigate (the mayor),” Lupien said. “A way we could go is having an elected comptroller, which would have the most degree of independence and integrity.”
Lupien recommended a thorough review of what may be needed for that office before taking a vote on the matter.
The mayor’s bill, which would require an amendment to the City Charter, is scheduled to be taken up by the City Council on Nov. 10.
UNDER THE MAYOR’S THUMB
The way the Office of Public Integrity is set up by statute, the office and its director are relegated to an internal auditor under the thumb of the mayor.
That much became evident in 2010, when Mayor Robert Duffy held a bizarre and hastily-called news conference in November of that year to announce that he was swapping his Office of Public Integrity director, James Sheppard, and Police Chief David Moore. Sheppard became the police chief and Moore took over the Office of Public Integrity.
Pressed by reporters to explain the move, Duffy gave no reason for the switch except to say “it was a decision that was made” a few hours earlier that Moore was “a good man” who “has done nothing wrong.”
The swapsies stunt irrevocably undermined the credibility and autonomy of the Office of Public Integrity, which Duffy set up in 2006 to audit and investigate city operations for any funny business.
In its early years, the office was regarded with suspicion and trepidation by city employees — and for good reason. Its investigators unraveled a city contractor kickback scheme and a parking meter theft ring.
After the swap, however, the office cycled through directors.
Its current leader, Tim Weir, a longtime FBI veteran with forensic auditing experience, was hired by Warren in 2014 and helped the mayor draft her recommendations to revamp the office two years later.
“Simply put, this proposal is a positive step toward enhancing the trust and confidence of those we serve,” Weir wrote the City Council at the time.
By then, though, he had already donated to the mayor’s re-election campaign — something he could be prohibited from doing under the mayor’s latest proposal. State Board of Elections records show Weir gave the mayor $300 in 2015.
The mayor’s push back then for a more robust investigative arm of city government coincided with a similar effort by Monroe County to create its own Office of Public Integrity amid a bid-rigging scandal. The county eventually incorporated the same standards that Warren sought then and her legislation seeks today.
The city Office of Public Integrity today is a shadow of its early self, with funding and investigations of financial crimes falling off considerably during the Warren administration.
The Democrat and Chronicle reported in 2018 that the number of such cases had dropped during Warren’s tenure to an average of 5.4 per year from 18.5 per year prior to her election.
City officials have said the office was returning to basics, focusing on audits and strengthening internal controls and education. The office currently has a budget of about $500,000.
Rachel Barnhart, a Democratic Monroe County legislator from Rochester, who has been critical of the role of the Office of Public Integrity, commended the mayor for her effort to address longstanding questions about the office’s autonomy and function.
Barnhart specifically noted that the mayor’s proposal would fix what she called “two huge flaws” in the office, by implementing a fixed term and forbidding the director from engaging in political activity.
“But that doesn’t mean an Office of Inspector General structure is the right replacement,” Barnhart said. “The legislation has significant issues and it doesn’t go far enough to address the lack of robust ethics infrastructure, policies, and practices at City Hall.”
Includes reporting by Jeremy Moule and Gino Fanelli.
David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.