Delaware lawmakers support new inspector general’s office to increase transparency

A bill sponsored by State Sen. Laura Sturgeon would create an inspector general’s office, which has been discussed as far back as 2007.

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Laura Sturgeon

Delaware State Sen. Laura Sturgeon sponsored legislation to create an inspector general’s office. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Some lawmakers are advocating for legislation they say could help the state of Delaware be more transparent when there are incidents of theft, waste and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.

The increased push to pass a bill that would create an inspector general’s office comes after WHYY News’ exclusive reporting about a former state employee who embezzled more than $181,000 from the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund in early 2023. The state did not publicly acknowledge the stolen money until they were contacted last month by WHYY News, which received a tip about the theft. The legislation has a price tag, so whether it moves out of committee may depend on the state’s revenue forecast issued next week.

Delaware employers pay into the trust fund depending on their workers’ wages. Jobless benefits are paid to people who qualify for unemployment assistance. The Department of Labor said the money has yet to be recovered. The former state employee who stole the money, Michael Brittingham, took his own life in April 2023 shortly after he was placed under investigation.

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Some lawmakers and open government activists say last year’s theft just coming to light now highlights the state’s lack of transparency with the public.

“The administration should let the public know what’s going on, in terms of a theft of this size of money from the state of Delaware,” said Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican from Georgetown. “Whether it’s a fund that’s contributed to by businesses, or whether it is your general fund money, that’s paid by all taxpayers in the state. When there’s this kind of theft, we should be informed about it.”

The legislation sponsored by State Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a Democrat from northern Delaware, would create an inspector general’s office. The inspector would be charged with investigating state agencies, and the General Assembly, when there’s an allegation of waste, fraud, abuse or corruption. The inspector general would hire a staff of 10 and would be required to be certified in investigation, auditing or evaluation within three years.

Under the proposal, the IG would be independent because it would not be an elected position. A selection panel would provide three names to the sitting governor, who would choose one to nominate for the position. The appointment must be confirmed by the Senate. The IG would serve five-year terms.

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Sturgeon said an Office of Inspector General would make incidents like the theft of taxpayer money from the UI trust fund more transparent to the public. She said it would add to the oversight of the attorney general and auditor of accounts, not duplicate them.

“The only way the public ever finds out about an investigation is if it leads to prosecution, and in which case, then you find out whatever comes out during the trial, if there’s a trial,” Sturgeon said. “If they don’t find enough evidence to prosecute, or there is no trial, it’s not like the attorney general then gives a big press release to the public sharing all the information that they gathered in their investigation. It’s just all kept very quiet. So these exact kinds of situations where — but for an Office of the Inspector General — the public may never know what’s happening behind closed doors.”

The sponsor said the office would investigate allegations of misconduct. Sturgeon said the IG would create a report that would be released to the public and posted to its website, but Sturgeon said the reports might not be released right away. Reports would not be created if the office determined there was no wrongdoing.

Sturgeon said the IG will have subpoena power and will be able to obtain documents currently barred from view by the public through exemptions under Delaware’s open records law. However, the new office would be able to exempt information of its own from the public, such as investigative documents.

The Delaware Coalition for Open Government’s John Flaherty said the creation of an IG office will provide a layer of transparency the public lacks due to the amount of information state officials are currently able to shield because of exemptions in the open records law. He said open government advocates have fought for over 20 years to make Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act laws more transparent, only to encounter fierce pushback from government officials.

“[The inspector general’s office] will release a report and that report will have the critical information that we’re looking for,” he said. “We really don’t need to see the specific documents, as long as the substance of those documents are contained in a report released to the public.”

The bill has bipartisan support, including Republicans Sen. Pettyjohn and Rep. Mike Smith. Long-time former Auditor Tom Wagner opposes the concept.

“You’re just creating another office with more overhead,” he said. “And then how do you differentiate between who gets the fraud: the inspector general, the auditor’s office or the AG’s office?”

The bill is sitting in the Senate Finance Committee. The fiscal note said it will cost about $540,000 in Fiscal Year 2025, $1.3 million in Fiscal Year 2026 and $1.4 million in Fiscal Year 2027. Joint Finance Committee Co-chairman Sen. Trey Paradee, a Democrat from the Dover area, said he supports the concept, but he’s concerned about the cost of creating a new state agency.

“The state budget is shaping up to be tighter than it has been over the past two budget cycles,” he said in a texted statement. “Whether we will have funding for this initiative will depend to a great degree upon the DEFAC [Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council] revenue projections.”

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