Duggan investigation: Can Detroit inspector general be impartial?

April 11, 2019, 1:48 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Inspector General Ellen Ha previously served in the city law department under Mayor Mike Duggan.

Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha has spent most of her career working for the city of Detroit, serving mayors from Coleman Young through Mike Duggan. Today her job is to investigate that same city government. But some community leaders question whether she’s capable of conducting an impartial review of her former colleagues, and have called for her to disqualify herself from an investigation into Mayor Mike Duggan’s dealings with a nonprofit run by his rumored mistress.

The investigation was announced by Ha’s office Monday, after the Free Press reported Duggan gave preferential treatment to a prenatal program run by Dr. Sonia Hassan in a possible conflict of interest.

Shortly afterward, Detroit activists, ex-city employees and politicos took to social media to point out the investigation itself may be conflicted. Ha was a longtime employee in the city law department before she was named Inspector General by city council last year. Her final role in the office was as its chief of staff, a promotion awarded by former corporation counsel Butch Hollowell, a Duggan appointee.

“It just doesn’t pass the smell test,” former police commissioner Ricardo Moore told Deadline Detroit. “She’s supposed to be independent but at the same time there’s a certain amount of allegiance to city government, to make sure city government comes out looking good.”

Chris White, a political consultant and activist, also felt Ha’s past service to the city could compromise the investigation.

“Right now a position that should be used as a watchdog is occupied by someone that’s from within the system,” said White, who’s worked for a number of state representatives from Detroit. “Under Ha, it’s not really an independent position as much as it is a promotion.”

Ha’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment. People who know her professionally — including city staffers — vouched for her integrity. 

The city’s law department handles legal business for the mayor, city council and various city departments. In her role as chief of staff, Ha oversaw relations with those “clients,” internal department operations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and sought to streamline department functions as part of an ongoing cost-savings initiative by Duggan. She worked briefly for the department in the ‘90s, under Mayor Coleman A. Young, and returned as FOIA supervisor in 2001 under Dennis Archer.

“It’s probably a legitimate concern about whether the investigation can be done in an unbiased manner, but it certainly doesn’t mean that she can’t do an unbiased investigation,” says Tom Ivacko, associate director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan's Ford school.

Created in a 2012 city charter revision as an effort to hold government accountable in the wake of the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal, the Inspector General is an appointed position with a six-year term. The office is charged with investigating corruption, waste, abuse and fraud.

The charter allows the IG, at their own discretion, to tap an outside lawyer to handle a case in the event of a conflict. Ivacko said this and other provisions, like the detailed investigative reports that are made public after a review, can help restore public confidence in government. He said Ha could manage the possible conflict through additional transparency, like sharing confidential files with the public. Her office, however, has thus far declined to answer media questions about the investigation. And it's not clear whether she opened the investigation of her own accord or was prompted by a complaint from the public or another party.

But Detroit’s language surrounding the IG role doesn’t go as far as other cities to safeguard against potential conflicts in the first place. Some cities allow only certified inspectors general to take on the role and have so-called “cooling periods” for ex-city employees. Albuquerque, for example, does not allow IGs to have worked in city government for four years prior to taking the job. Baltimore’s inspector general must be board-certified and win approval from an independent panel.

Regardless of the rules, it’s rare that former city employees take the position. Deadline Detroit reviewed the bios of inspectors general in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore and Albuquerque, and found none previously worked for the cities they’re now tasked with holding accountable. Baltimore has had five inspectors general, none of whom came from city government.

The Association of Inspectors General — which creates standards for the industry — is silent on cooling periods. Its guidebook requires “independence, fairness, objectivity and freedom from real or perceived impairment” and encourages IGs to disqualify themselves from investigations when they have “personal impairments” including “professional … relationships that might appear to lead the [office] to limit the extent of the work, to limit disclosure, or to alter the outcome of the work.”

Despite this, people who know Ha say she has the integrity to set aside personal feelings about her former employer.

“Ellen Ha is a professional and I have no reservations about her ability to do the job as the charter requires,” said her predecessor, former Detroit Inspector General James Heath. “I think anyone who thinks [she] cannot do a thorough job … I think they’re wrong about that.”

And city council members, who appointed her in an 8-0 vote, seem to view her lengthy career in city government as a strength. When Ha was sworn in, Council President Brenda Jones applauded the "many years of legal and municipal experience" she brought to the position.

Duggan was also satisfied with the choice.

"Throughout her career, Ellen has proven herself to be a thoughtful, fair and extremely hardworking lawyer and I'm very happy for her,” he said in the release. “A person of her ethics and integrity is a perfect fit for the position of Inspector General."

Duggan has said he welcomes Ha's investigation. The Free Press reported the mayor steered more than $350,000 to the Make Your Date nonprofit and assigned city staff to help raise money for it, an arrangement experts called unusual and concerning. Duggan has said all of the money went to Wayne State University, which he says administers the program. City funds were reportedly assigned to both WSU and Make Your Date. The organization was registered as a nonprofit with the state and IRS.

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