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
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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.

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