Civic Engagement

Rooting out waste

For Baltimore inspector general, it’s the little things that add up

Isabel Mercedes Cumming (’84) had been at JMU for all of three days when she decided to run for student government to help solve the university’s problem of food waste.

Nearly four decades later, as inspector general for Baltimore, Maryland, she is still doing the work she started as a Duke. “I credit it all back to James Madison,” she said, praising the school’s positivity and camaraderie. “When people want to change something, we work together to make it happen.”

As a freshman in Fall 1980, Cumming had no plans to run for student government — until she was assigned a temporary bed in a Frederikson Hall study hall because of overcrowding. Her parents had signed her up for a residence hall without alcohol or visitation, and she would have been reassigned once a room became available. The problem was, she wanted to stay in Frederikson, an upperclassman dorm that allowed alcohol and five days’ visitation each week. So, she went to her dorm mother and asked what she had to do to stay. “Become an SGA senator,” she was told, and that’s what she did.

Hearing she would have to run against the incumbent, Cumming was undeterred. She spoke to the residents of every Village suite — except for her opponent’s — and explained her plight. “I won overwhelmingly,” Cumming said. “Next thing I knew, I was a senator.” Eventually a room became available, she said, but for about two months, she happily stayed in the study hall.

In her third year at Madison, Cumming captured 61.3% of the vote to become SGA president. During her time at JMU, she was also a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Beta Alpha Psi, and a Sigma Nu Little Sister.

When it was time to choose an SGA committee, she decided to take on the biggest one — food services — armed only with the knowledge her mother had given her, that “you should never waste food.” JMU, at the time, did not have a policy on how much food students could take at one time; this prompted students to pile their plates with food they couldn’t finish because they didn’t want to have to return to the line for more. After organizing a student survey, Cumming said, “We discovered that students’ eyes are bigger than their stomach.”

Instituting the “seconds” policy, she said her committee ended up saving the university about $600 a year per student. The cost of tuition also went down because of how much the university was saving on food.

“When you’re hungry, your eyes are always bigger,” she said. By restricting students to one serving on their first trip through the line, she discovered that many students didn’t return for more food, even though they could — “and that’s what was so shocking.”

It was a “little thing, but it made a huge difference,” Cumming said. “And that’s what the little things in life end up doing too.”

The experience, though far from what she was studying (Accounting) or had intended to do with her life (become a lawyer), influenced the course of her career.

In her third year at Madison, Cumming captured 61.3% of the vote to become SGA president. During her time at JMU, she was also a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Beta Alpha Psi, and a Sigma Nu Little Sister.

She later earned a master’s degree in Business Administration and a law degree, with honors, from the University of Baltimore. “My dream was to go to law school,” she recalled — in part because no one in her family ever had.

Now, nearly 40 years after her short-lived political career, the 60-year-old Cumming, a registered independent, still takes on fraud, waste and abuse. Her Madison Experience taught her that “wasting anything ended up wasting money.”

Cumming is a certified inspector general and fraud examiner. Three times, she has been named one of the Top 100 Women in Maryland.
(Photo: Jimell Greene)

Proud of how she and her staff work for the people of Baltimore, Cumming said her office gets 800 complaints a year from people who need someone to take on systemic fraud and abuse. “Our duty is to pursue the truth with an objective mind, without prejudice and regardless of politics,” Cumming said. “That’s what an inspector general should do.”

A prime example of this is when her office changed the job of inspector general to an independent role that doesn’t report to the mayor, a change supported by 82% of Baltimore voters. Then, in November 2022, she fought to shake up her advisory board, which previously included the mayor and heads of other city government offices. “That’s a fatal flaw,” she said, and 87% of the city’s voters agreed.

“We just had our first advisory board on April 18, and it is an incredible board,” she said. “What matters is that you leave a place better than when you came. I have set a firm foundation that this Office of the Inspector General will continue far beyond me.”

Cumming began her professional career in 1984 as an auditor with KPMG Peat Marwick in Baltimore and was later director of internal audit for American National Bank in Baltimore for about seven years. "For 10 years, I was in the auditing and accounting world," she explained.

She started her legal career as a clerk at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then worked with the Economic Crimes Unit of Baltimore for more than four years, handling various white-collar crime cases including identity theft, elder abuse, embezzlement and arson. For approximately six years, she was an assistant state prosecutor, working high-profile cases of elected officials throughout Maryland.

Next, Cumming was the chief of the Economic Crimes/Special Prosecutions Unit of the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office for more than seven years, and she started one of the first mortgage fraud units in the country. Then she worked for six years as the assistant inspector general of investigations for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, overseeing 200 investigations and a team of 14.

In 2003, Cumming was named the first Top Fraud Fighter in Maryland and, in 2006, the Certified Fraud Fighter of the Year by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Three times, she was named to the Top 100 Women in Maryland by The Daily Record and recently a Leader in Law. 

She is a certified inspector general and a certified fraud examiner. She previously taught Principles of Fraud Examination at the University of Baltimore and continues to serve on the Dean’s Advisory Committee for the law school. In January, she was elected as first vice president of the Association of Inspectors General. 

“I’m successful because the citizens are behind the office, and I have an incredible team as well. We have made real changes by believing we can.”
Isabel Mercedes Cumming (’84)

Cumming has also been part of many other firsts, including becoming the first female and first Hispanic to be named inspector general in Baltimore. Recalling how some Twitter commenters at the time projected she wouldn’t last 18 months in the office, she recently pointed out that, as of June, she’s made it 63 months so far. 

In her senior year at JMU, she was chosen by President Ronald E. Carrier to give a commencement speech. “He believed that we [the students] should have a lot of power,” she said. And that’s an idea she’s been trying to pass on to the people she serves through her job.

“I love the fact that [my office is] very interactive with the citizens, and the citizens are the ones who have made the office incredibly effective. They’re where we get our complaints,” she said.

It’s also rewarding when she hears people say they believe that her office can help. “Many times we’ve heard we’re the last hope,” she said. “I’m successful because the citizens are behind the office, and I have an incredible team as well. We have made real changes by believing we can.”

Next Story

Engaged with the World

Student shadows doctors in Italy during summer fellowship

Eliana Diaz-Aceituno had the opportunity to observe medical teams in vascular surgery, thoracic surgery and ophthalmology.