The Magazine

What the Data Didn’t Show

Martin O’Malley’s vaunted management techniques missed the massive corruption in the Baltimore jail.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By KATE HAVARD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Baltimore
The presidential ambitions of Maryland governor Martin O’Malley have taken a hit after a federal investigation uncovered a sordid sex-drugs-and-racketeering ring festering right under his nose.

Tim Foley, O'Malley

Error. Error. Error.

Tim Foley

On April 23, prosecutors indicted 13 state corrections officers on charges that they colluded with inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC) to launder money and smuggle drugs and cell phones to the inmates, members of a prison gang called the Black Guerrilla Family.

Two of the guards indicted had the name of the jail’s BGF leader, Tavon White, tattooed on their bodies, one on the wrist, the other on the neck. Of the 13 (female) guards indicted, four were pregnant with White’s children. At a news conference, the FBI agent in charge said that White “effectively raised the BGF flag over Baltimore City Detention Center.”

That this occurred on O’Malley’s watch looked bad, but might have been redeemable. After all, the governor first rose to prominence as Baltimore’s tough-on-crime mayor. Department of Public Safety and Corrections secretary Gary Maynard emphasized the state was proactive enough to ask the FBI to commandeer the investigation. It was time for O’Malley to take control, fire a lot of people, and pose for some good pictures frowning and talking intently with the FBI.

Instead, the spin has been almost worse than the scandal. O’Malley was off on a trade mission to Israel when the story broke, and he waited a week to respond. When he finally did, the governor shirked responsibility (“We’re all responsible”) and clung tightly to the notion that the indictments are a “positive development in our fight against corruption and gangs.”

It did not go over well. The Washington Post’s Robert McCartney wrote, “O’Malley spent 40 minutes .  .  . trying to convince me that” the indictments were “a major advance in the struggle against the state’s deadliest gang. He didn’t succeed.”

“This is an embarrassing failure of management. It reflects badly on the entire administration of the state corrections system and ultimately on the governor,” editorialized the Baltimore Sun. “The only possible ‘positive development’ at this point would be for Mr. O’Malley to take full responsibility for this fiasco, but a chipper assessment a week after the fact doesn’t cut it.”

O’Malley’s spin rubbed Maryland lawmakers the wrong way, too—especially Baltimore Democrats, who grumble that the governor has, in his rapacious quest for higher office, neglected his own backyard. “This is not a ‘positive development,’ ” declared delegate Curt Anderson. “This is an embarrassment to the entire state.”

It’s also done damage to O’Malley’s self-anointed status as a “performance-driven progressive” who takes a data-driven approach to solving problems. When glowing profiles put O’Malley forward as a presidential candidate, they often point to his record of passing liberal policies in a liberal state and his Paul-Ryanesque biceps. But more than anything else, they point to CitiStat.

When he became mayor of Baltimore in 1999, O’Malley co-opted CompStat, the New York Police Department’s vaunted system of high-tech crime fighting, expanding the scope of its mission. He applied it to city government, tracking trash pickup and pothole repairs the way the NYPD tracked murders. The program landed him a lot of national attention: Esquire called him “Best Young Mayor in America” in 2002 and Time included him in its 2005 list of the “5 Best Big-City Mayors.”

After O’Malley became governor in 2007, he started StateStat, which maps everything from employee absenteeism to improving employment for veterans. But critics say that StateStat also creates a fine opportunity to obfuscate using lots of meaningless data, disguising the metrics that matter. To wit, Jim Pettit and Mark Newgent, writing in National Review Online, have compiled a list of StateStat’s failures. Legislative audits reveal:

a lack of accountability for the state’s speed-camera vendors, chronic cronyism, violations of procurement laws at the State Highway Administration, failure of the education department to conduct background checks for child-care workers, lack of monitoring of state tax credits by the Department of Business and Economic Development, failure of the labor department to inspect elevators, and millions of dollars in lost and overpaid funds at the Developmental Disabilities Administration.

This latest meltdown in a Baltimore jail is only one of many failures. But the idea that there’s a way to harness technology to cure government incompetence remains alluring. In May, O’Malley showed up on the cover of Washington Monthly, styled “the best manager working in government today” for his ability “to actually make the bureaucracy work.”

But as the corrections scandal shows, the power of StateStat is but a tale told by Martin O’Malley, full of pomp and PowerPoint, signifying not very much.

You didn’t need Big Data to know that the corrections department was a mess, a former employee said: All you had to do is walk down the halls of BCDC and smell the corruption.

The former BCDC officer, who asked not to be identified, described life inside the jail: “It was very medieval, very dark. Every day you’re walking down dark hallways like you’re in a dangerous projects neighborhood, inmates crawling all over the walls, everything smelling like marijuana, always.” With drugs, he said, “You could launch a search but they’d just flush it.”

When it came to sex between inmates and guards, he said, a common rendezvous point was the BCDC gym, where a corrections officer could lock herself in with the inmate.

Corruption was rampant. Inmates dined on “shrimp, crab, whatever they wanted,” he said. But there was little point to complaining. “You’d file a report and the assistant warden would tell you they lost the packet. You couldn’t call the confidential reporting line they give us, because it’s been broken for years. You call it, every day your car would get a little bit vandalized, one day a broken window, then maybe a radio, you know, just enough so it wouldn’t meet your deductible but you’d know they were there.”

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. “I went back in the Army,” he said. “It was safer for me to go to Afghanistan than to stay there.”

In the wake of the scandal, O’Malley has promised a thorough investigation. But behind closed doors, O’Malley officials seem more interested in making the story go away than in cleaning up the mess.

After the indictments came out, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee quickly called for a hearing with top corrections officials to assess the problem (and, frankly, to grill Secretary Maynard).

A few days before the hearing took place, it was suddenly canceled. According to WBAL-TV, Stacy Mayer, the governor’s chief legislative officer, showed up at a meeting between Maynard and several members of the committee and discouraged lawmakers from holding a hearing.

When it was finally rescheduled, it had been taken away from the Judiciary Committee (whose members are notoriously sharp-tongued) and put before a friendlier Legislative Policy Committee, where problems will be divvied up and task-forced into obscurity.

Meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections has been trying its hand at press intimidation.

On May 10, Republican lawmakers were given a tour of BCDC. Although requests from multiple outlets to see inside the jail had been denied, I accompanied the lawmakers to Baltimore, hoping to snag a spot on an already scheduled tour. A corrections official (a five-year veteran of O’Malley’s office who transferred to the department six months ago) greeted me outside the jail and told me I would not be allowed to join them. If I wanted to appeal, I should contact communications director Rick Binetti.

On the phone, Binetti (a veteran of O’Malley’s mayoral office) accused me of plotting a “sneak attack” on the jail. I was “wasting my time with these ridiculous requests,” he said, and should stop asking. “Is my message clear?”

Crystal! The department of corrections has a bad attitude—and something to hide.
After their tour, delegates described an “ancient” facility, parts of which were constructed during the Civil War. Delegate Michael Smigiel (R-Cecil) said that corrections staff joked with lawmakers about sprucing the place up for the tour. He said that inside, the jail smelled like “feces—and fresh paint.”

So while the BCDC was becoming, in the words of one Baltimore Sun reporter, “a filthy sex dungeon,” where was StateStat?

The department of corrections’ most recent StateStat report does take note of cell phone seizures—but there’s no indication that the numbers are fluctuating because the guards are smuggling them in.

Harvard professor Robert Behn, who writes about the “Performance Stat” style of governing, says that although StateStat is well equipped to tackle things like staff corruption, “Measuring corruption is not a role for performance stat until the leaders decide to focus on it, or until someone brings it to their attention.” If an agency’s struggling to tackle a problem, there’s no incentive to point it out in StateStat meetings. When agencies don’t tell StateStat what it wants to hear, the agency heads face inquisition-style grillings by the governor’s staff—or by the governor himself.

It’s part of why state employees often refer to the governor by his initials—MO’M. With StateStat, the executive branch plays a heavy-handed role in even the nitty-grittiest of agency operations. It’s an approach that O’Malley says he’d like to see taken to the next level.

“I think the truth is we need FedStat,” O’Malley told Washington Monthly. “At a time when people are so very cynical about what our public institutions are capable of delivering .  .  . the willingness of leaders to make themselves vulnerable by declaring goals could well restore that essential trust that we need in order to bring forth a new era of progress.”

After this soliloquy, O’Malley “stopped, nodding at the cadence of his own thoughts.” He was enchanted, it seems, by the prospect of turning the nanny state into the MO’Mmy state. Like the president he hopes to succeed, O’Malley believes technology can not only cure the public’s distrust of government, but also curb man’s natural tendency toward corruption. He is merely the latest liberal to think that the newest innovations in social science can flatten out human nature, making governing easy, clean, and just.

Instead, O’Malley has created a new buffer for bureaucracy, which nurtures not “a new era of progress,” but the oldest kind of corruption—vividly on display in Maryland’s jails. This is a big blow for StateStat, and for O’Malley. When you look at the data, neither one measures up.

Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers