The inspector general overseeing Montgomery County’s Planning Board has released a letter contradicting statements made by former Planning Board member Partap Verma at a public hearing last week, in which he accused former Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson of keeping investigations by the commission’s inspector general open, when they should have been finished or closed.
The letter from the inspector general for the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, and a letter Verma wrote in response, represent the latest developments in the months-long saga of the Planning Board, and the feud between Anderson and Verma. This summer, an investigation by the inspector general found that Anderson kept a full bar in his office, and he and two commissioners were reprimanded for violating Planning Department rules.
Allegations surfaced against Anderson about the Planning Department workplace, and a published news report described allegations that Verma violated ethics laws during investigations of Anderson (both men denied the claims). After the board fired Planning Director Gwen Wright without cause, the County Council sought and received resignations from the entire Planning Board. State Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Dist 19), with the backing of County Executive Marc Elrich, has since proposed a task force that would look at moving planning administration under the direct control of county government; the County Council overwhelmingly opposed the state bill in a meeting earlier this month marked by hostility.
In the letter to Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Dist. 17), Inspector General Renee Kenney refuted Verma’s allegation that Anderson leaned on Kenney to keep investigations open.
“During my five years as the Inspector General, the former Montgomery County Chair did not influence nor control the direction of any investigation. Occasionally, the Chair brought potential issues to my attention for possible investigation or audit, as this is customary for Chairs and Officers of the Commission. My decisions to act were autonomous without any external influence and were made in the best interests of our community stakeholders,” Kenney wrote.
At a Dec. 15 public hearing about Kramer’s bills, as Verma made the accusations that Anderson had kept investigations open, he alleged that one of the investigations involved “a former commissioner on a state ethics violation, and another against a sitting council member.”
Kenney said the inspector general has never investigated a sitting council member.
She did, however, confirm she conducted a limited investigation of a Planning Board member to assess possible violations of a state conflicts of interest law in summer 2021, when that person was running for County Council.
While Kenney did not name the former board member who was the subject of the investigation, Council Member Natali Fani-Gonzalez (D-Dist. 6) is the only member of the Planning Board in 2021 who launched a campaign for County Council. Kenney said she launched the limited investigation after a board member brought forward allegations. She presented her findings to the board’s audit committee.
“It was determined that the allegations did not warrant referral to Maryland’s State Ethics Commission as the Public Ethics Law does not include the solicitation, acceptance, or receipt of political contributions as a gift. To protect the reputation of the Planning Board and Commission, the Audit Committee requested a complete investigation into the campaign activities of the Planning Board member,” Kenney wrote.
Kenney said she requested a list of donors from the board member who was being investigated. However, the board member resigned from the Planning Board on Aug. 31, 2021, and the Office of the Inspector General did not take any further investigatory action.
“At no time during the OIG’s limited investigation did the former Montgomery County Chair try to influence the investigation, or request the investigation remain open,” Kenney wrote.
Fani-Gonzalez said in an interview Wednesday that she had checked with the state’s Ethics Commission and legal staff from the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission that she was following proper ethic laws regarding campaign financing.
She added the reason she was not able to provide a list of donors is because she had not yet been certified to receive public funds, using the county’s public financing system. Fani-Gonzalez was certified to receive public funds on Sept. 21, 2021, county records indicate.
She said she wasn’t “actively looking for money” until she had been certified and approved to receive public donations. Her campaign kickoff event was in September of 2021, after she had resigned — as it obviously would have been improper for her to raise funds while still on the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, Fani-Gonzalez said.
In an interview with Bethesda Beat Tuesday afternoon, Verma said he is “on the same page” with the inspector general’s letter and that he feels his comments at the public hearing were misunderstood.
“There is no conflict. I respect the Inspector General,” he said. But he added “they don’t know everything that was happening behind the scenes when I was on the Audit Committee.”
Verma submitted a response to the letter Monday that he said aims to clarify his statements and provide more information. In the response, he recounts two incidents in which he alleges Anderson did not agree to “close out” investigations.
“I wanted to make sure that [the Office of the Inspector General] were in the loop, but I think there was some miscommunication. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk [at the hearing]. So I was advised by someone to spell it out and clarify what I need to clarify,” Verma said.
Anderson told Bethesda Beat he denies the allegations Verma makes in the letter. “[Verma] is changing his story now that the Inspector General has refuted his version of events, but it still doesn’t add up,” Anderson said. “The Inspector General says she planned to keep an investigation open because she was waiting for relevant information to become available, and that she made this decision without being influenced by anyone.”
Anderson told Bethesda Beat Tuesday afternoon that he believes the Inspector General’s letter confirms what he has been saying.
“[Verma] has manufactured a whole series of allegations against me in an effort to rehabilitate his own reputation by trying to attack mine. And I think it’s pretty clear from that letter that it’s catching up to him,” Anderson said.
Verma told Bethesda Beat he expects the Office of the Inspector General to take his letter seriously and looks forward to a response.
Kenney, the inspector general, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that her letter on Verma’s allegations “clarifies any comments about his testimony [at the state public hearing]”, adding: “I’m not in a position to make any verbal comment.”