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Watchdogs Undermined by Political Appointees

The inspectors general for 64 federal agencies are the government’s frontline against waste, fraud and abuse. It sounds like a salutary public service. But the performances and experiences of inspectors general vary alarmingly and now Congress is reassessing an office created after Watergate to rein in the executive branch.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In two weeks, the Senate will debate the Inspector General Reform Act of 2007, according to aide for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a bill co-sponsor. Meanwhile, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform collected a survey last week from the majority of inspectors general, listing the recommendations they have made during the Bush administration that have gone unimplemented.

The Senate legislation — the House passed a Reform Act in November — would “ensure that IGs remain autonomous and operate independent of the agencies they oversee,” said Beth Petite Lavine, spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) a bill co-sponsor. The oversight committee is looking at what happens when the agencies allow the investigations but ignore the findings.

Both efforts are part of a sentiment expressed by Democrats and Republicans in Congress who focus on oversight as well as by analysts who study the federal bureaucracy: the White House-appointed leadership at federal agencies is undermining the watchdogs. “This is a crisis,” argued Kenneth Gold, director of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, “The IG’s power has diminished.”

Beverley Lumpkin, an investigator for the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, agrees. But she emphasizes it’s more than a blame-Bush situation. “Things are not much worse in the Bush administration,” Lumpkin said, “It’s been a problem for 20 years. Administrations take advantage of the fact that agency heads control so much.”

Advocates for inspector general reform argue that there are essentially three ways the office of inspector general has been politicized and consequently lost its bite. The first is the matter of a rogue inspector general stonewalling his own staff’s investigations. In the past year, six inspectors general have been investigated by a committee of their peers for allegations like stopping staff investigations on administration political appointees, cutting back on staff while giving themselves a raise and abusive treatment of employees.

The most well-known case is that of the State Department IG, Howard “Cookie” Krongard. Krongard resigned shortly after deceiving the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about knowing whether his brother was on the Blackwater advisory board. Blackwater was one of several State Department contractors Krongard had ordered his staff to stop investigating.

While Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice didn’t seem to mind that Krongard stopping investigations, agency heads have taken action on IG’s who started them. The CIA’s John Helgerson appears to be the latest IG to be undermined in this way. Helgerson issued scathing reports on issues like the intelligence agency failing to anticipate 9/11 and the agency’s disregard for humane interrogation practices. So the Central Intelligence Agency turned the tables last October, and started investigating Helgerson on the premise of helping him do his job better.

Last week with no public explanation, the CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden, announced the appointment of an ombusdman for Helgerson. “This is especially troubling,” said Brian Miller, inspector general of the General Services Administration, “because it may tend ultimately to subvert the independence of inspectors general.”

Miller knows about going up against an agency head. GSA Administrator Lurita Doan told Miller last year that he was terrorizing employees by scrutinizing whether they were getting the best deal on the $56 billion worth of contracts purchased by GSA. Doan subsequently wrote an e-mail to GSA regional administrators stating, “Everyone now understands we have challenges with our OIG. … This is going to require a lot of work to fix and I’m going to need your help.”

“Psychologically it is extremely hard for people who take their jobs seriously and want to improve GSA to work in a climate where the agency head is openly hostile to the duties those people must perform,” said David Farley, a spokesman for the GSA’s office of inspector general.

Doan also took the extraordinary step of reducing Miller’s budget. One key provision of the Senate legislation, according to McCaskill’s aide, is that inspectors general would be able to send their budget proposal straight to Congress and the White House. Another key provision would set up an “integrity council,” independent of the White House, with the ability to discipline IG’s not aggressively investigating their agencies.

The legislation doesn’t tackle the third obstacle to effective IG’s, when the agency is simply looking the other way. That was the problem Clark Kent Ervin experienced as the first inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. “This administration has tended more to ignore recommendations than to actively fight or obstruct investigations,” Ervin said.

Sen. John F. Kerry may have cited Ervin’s scathing audits during the 2004 presidential campaign, but DHS ignored them. After publicly feuding with the White House, Ervin left in December 2004.

Still, a good deal of work by inspector generals is implemented. Roll Call newspaper reported last year that IG’s provided the government $9.9 billion in potential savings from audit recommendations and $6.8 billion in investigative recoveries. And some IG’s are neither thwarting investigations nor being thwarted. “Everyone in town agrees that Glenn Fine at the Justice Department and Earl Devaney at Interior are great,” said Lumpkin, of the Project of Government Oversight.

Lumpkin added that the public doesn’t know about the work of a lot of other good ones because the administration is interfering with it. And this, she said, “is a problem that’s reached it’s boiling point.”

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