In Sharply Worded Letters, Franchot and Kagan Spar Over Progress on 911 Fee Audits

May 14, 2021

By: Bennett Leckrone

Read the full article here.

A 9-1-1 emergency call center in Montgomery County. File photo

It’s been more than six months since Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) raised a red flag over a lack of 911 fee audits from the Maryland Comptroller’s office — but she says she’s yet to receive any data.

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (R) had paused audits due to the pandemic, but agreed to resume 911 fee audits after Kagan warned of a lack of oversight last November. Although those audits have since resumed, Kagan said in a Thursday letter to Franchot that the state’s Next Generation 911 Commission hasn’t received any information from the comptroller’s office.

Kagan is the chair of that commission, which oversaw a revamp of the state’s 911 fee system. She also sponsored legislation to require comptroller audits of telephone companies that collect 911 fees, warning in 2019 that T-Mobile had overcharged Marylanders for 911 fees for more than a decade.

The commission recommended audits of 911 fees in 2019 after those overcharges came to light, and the General Assembly passed a bill in 2020 requiring regular audits of 911 fee collections. Now in its final year, Kagan wrote that her commission needs those audits to finish their work.

“I convened the NG911 Commission last week for our 4th and final year,” Kagan wrote. “We have an ambitious agenda that will support the counties as they transition to Next Generation 911 in order to save lives. Without your audits, we simply cannot complete our mission.”

But Kagan and other commission members might be looking at a long wait to get information. In a letter responding to Kagan on Thursday, Franchot said much of the information in those audits is confidential, and that a full report on those audits isn’t due until Dec. 1.

Franchot wrote that Kagan’s own legislation requiring the audits mandates that information given to his office be “confidential, privileged or proprietary, and may not be disclosed to any person other than the telephone company or [commercial mobile radio service] provider.”

“I hope you did not expect my agency to disclose specific taxpayer information relating to ongoing audits with you or members of the [commission],” Franchot wrote. “It is not the practice of my agency to publicly disclose which taxpayers or entities are under audit, nor is it permissible by law.”

Franchot said Kagan’s legislation requires his agency to submit an annual report about the 911 fee audits conducted “during the immediately preceding year.” Since Kagan’s legislation was enacted in 2020, Franchot wrote, the report on 911 fees for that year is not due until Dec. 1, 2021.

Kagan said late Thursday that she isn’t looking for granular, specific data involving individual taxpayers, but rather general information about whether telephone companies are playing by the rules. She said that will help the commission’s work and help local governments plan ahead for costs associated with the 911 system.

“We just need to know that they’re on it, that they’re addressing it with the company, that the company will fix it,” Kagan said.

Franchot blasted the tone of Kagan’s letter, which he described as “patently false” and “offensive.” In her letter, Kagan urged Franchot, who is running for governor, to “take time away from the campaign trail to ensure that your taxpayer-paid employees are fulfilling these responsibilities.”

Franchot said Kagan was dragging nonpartisan state employees into the argument and listed work his employees have done during the pandemic, including conducting the audits of telephone companies and issuing speedy state stimulus checks after the passage of the RELIEF Act.

Kagan said her concerns were aimed only at Franchot, and not comptroller’s office staff. She said she found Franchot’s response “patronizing and dismissive,” and feels that the long list of work done was “filler” that didn’t address the issue of 911 fee oversight.

“‘The buck stops here’ is what Harry Truman said,” she said. “It would be nice if we thought that the buck stops with the Comptroller.”

Franchot called Kagan’s letter a “campaign press release” multiple times in his response.

Kagan said she was writing in her capacity as commission chair about a legislative matter. “For him to take a pot shot and accuse me of sending out a campaign press release, and say that five times, is ridiculous,” Kagan said.

Kagan distributed the letter, written on Senate letterhead, through Constant Contact, which is paid for by her campaign finance entity, and the message said “PRESS RELEASE” in the subject line. The email also included the line “By Authority: Citizens Helping Elect Cheryl Kagan (C.H.E.C.K.).”

Franchot pledged in his response to Kagan to continue 911 fee audits to determine if telephone companies are remitting the proper fees to the state.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include additional details from the letters sent Thursday.