Government Watchdogs Under Attack From Bosses

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Houston Chronicle
December 28, 2006
By Larry Margasak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The inspectors general entrusted to unearth waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies are increasingly under attack, as the top government officials they scrutinize attempt to erode the watchdogs' independence and authority.
During 2006, several inspectors general felt the wrath of government bosses or their supporters in Congress after investigations cited agencies for poor performance, excessive spending or wasted money.
For instance:
*The top official of the government's property and supply agency compared its inspector general to a terrorist, hoping to chill audits of General Services Administration regional offices and private businesses.
*Directors of the government's legal aid program discussed firing their inspector general, who investigated how top officials lavishly spent tax dollars for limousine services, ritzy hotels and $14 "Death by Chocolate" desserts.
*Administration-friendly Republicans in Congress tried to do away with the special inspector general for Iraq, who repeatedly exposed examples of administration waste that cost billions of dollars. Among the contractors criticized was Halliburton Corp., once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.
*The Pentagon has been making its inspector general use lawyers picked by the defense secretary instead of independently hired attorneys.
"It's hard to believe that the government is serious about policing itself when it's whacking the people who are actually minding the store," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that tracks government waste and fraud. "These people are our security officers who help guard tens of billions of dollars. It's ridiculous to prevent them from doing their jobs."
Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the Bush administration counts on "independent and unbiased views" of the watchdogs and is willing to intervene in any disputes.
"If and when there are times where intervention is necessary, the administration will do so to ensure all the parties are educated about one another's roles and the importance of maintaining a productive relationship — and a healthy respect for the responsibilities of all involved," he added.
When GSA Inspector General Brian Miller's team intensively audited the agency's regional offices, he ran into strong resistance from agency administrator Lurita Doan.
A business owner, Doan suggested some auditing functions be taken away from the watchdog and given to small businesses.
"There are two kinds of terrorism in the U.S.: the external kind and internally, the IGs have terrorized the regional administrators," she told Miller and his staff on Aug. 18.
The quotes are from a participant's meeting notes obtained by The Associated Press. Miller aide Robert Samuels attended the meeting and confirmed the comments, as did another attendee.
Doan declined comment.
The jobs of two watchdogs had to be rescued by Congress.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, inserted language in a defense bill to close down the Iraq inspector general by the end of 2007.
That inspector general, Stuart Bowen Jr., has conducted several high-profile investigations of how the Bush administration has spent money during Iraqi reconstruction. He found dramatic examples of missing weapons, wasted billions and excessive overhead costs by Halliburton.
Hunter said he agreed that Bowen's office had been useful but that a termination date was needed so that normal oversight functions could be returned to the Defense and State departments.
Democrats and key Republicans rebelled and saved Bowen's job.
"It is inconceivable that we would remove this aggressive oversight while the American taxpayer is still spending billions of dollars on Iraq reconstruction projects," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said.
Legal Services Corp. Inspector General Kirt West rankled top managers of the federal legal aid program for the poor when he investigated lavish executive expenditures. The agency's board of directors discussed firing him in early 2006.
West "should know that he's got to ... shape up or we will ship him out," board vice chairman Lillian BeVier said, according to one meeting transcript.
Three members of Congress intervened to save West's job.
Congress and the Bush administration also have left open one of the most critical watchdog jobs — the Pentagon inspector general's post. The job has been vacant for 16 months, even as billions of dollars are spent each month in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Bush's nominee, David Laufman, withdrew recently because he couldn't get a Senate vote.
But while his nomination was alive, he warned Congress of a lack of independence for the Pentagon watchdog.
Laufman brought to senators' attention a directive — renewed in 2004 by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office — that requires the inspector general's legal office to be staffed by lawyers who work for the secretary rather than independently hired attorneys.
Congress created the inspectors general jobs during the post-Watergate era to ensure federal agencies had independent oversight and accountability. The IGs audit how money is spent and also play a critical role in investigating allegations of wrongdoing and protecting federal whistleblowers.
Even amid increasing attacks, inspectors general have made their mark.
Interior Department inspector general Earl Devaney has played a key role investigating the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, by exposing political pressures and shenanigans designed to get favorable treatment inside Interior for Abramoff's tribal clients.
And GSA's Miller has conducted investigations that:
*Led Oracle Corp. to pay $98.5 million to settle charges of inflated computer costs to the government.
*Exposed vendors for offering the government facial tissues priced at $22 more per carton than commercial customers.
*Uncovered portable radios priced $1,473 more to government agencies than to private sector customers.
Most criticism of the watchdogs comes from federal officials "not particularly happy with the messages being delivered," said Gaston Gianni Jr., now retired as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. inspector general.
"I don't think you compromise to get brownie points. You have to report what you find."