The rhythm of a federal scandal

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Federal scandals tend to share certain common characteristics, especially with the way they play out.

Let’s review some recent examples of government misconduct to understand the trends. As case studies, we’ll use the the cover-ups of treatment delays at Veterans Affairs hospitals, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups and the General Service Administration’s lavish training conference in Las Vegas.

We’re not trying to pick on the Obama administration — these are just the most recent examples of wrongdoing. Both parties’ have had their share of scandals, from the Iran-Contra affair during President Reagan’s administration to the Monica Lewinsky scandal under President Clinton.


President Obama speaks during a news conference in which he announced the resignation of Eric Shinseki as secretary of Veterans Affairs. (EPA/Michael Reynolds).

The Wrongdoing

Sometimes, the problems arise through White House actions. Other times, they stem from bureaucratic bungling or lack of oversight within agencies.

The VA scandal involved systemic falsification of scheduling records to hide treatment delays at VA hospitals, possibly with the intent to pad performance scores and earn bonuses, according to an inspector general’s report released last week.


A VA clinic in Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the case of the IRS, the agency targeted nonprofit advocacy groups for extra scrutiny based on their policy positions, often focusing on organizations with conservative-leaning terms such as “tea party” and “patriot” in their names.

With the GSA scandal, the agency spent more than $820,000 on a regional conference for 300 employees, according to an inspector general’s report.

Whistleblowing

This is how the details often emerge, so kudos to whistleblowers who bring evidence of wrongdoing to the media or independent watchdogs such as an inspector general or the Office of Special Counsel.

Once the allegations emerge, they tend to prompt public concern and outrage, as well as official investigations and congressional hearings. 

With the VA matter, the scandal garnered widespread attention after a retired VA doctor told CNN that the department’s Phoenix hospital manipulated its scheduling records to hide treatment delays for more than 1,000 patients, some of whom died while waiting for care.

The IRS case was a bit different, because the whistleblowing appears to have started from outside the agency, with the groups that were affected by the targeting. Some of those organizations contacted members of Congress, who then requested a review by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) - Treasury Inspector General Russell George.
Treasury Inspector General Russell George. (AP)

It is unclear who first raised concerns about the GSA’s extravagant conference. The IG report said only that the agency’s deputy administrator requested an investigation into allegations of excessive spending and employee misconduct.

Investigation/Hearings

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned from his position last week, requested an independent investigation of the scheduling allegations after they emerged. Soon afterward, he testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about the steps he had taken to address the claims, which he said made him “mad as hell.”

As for the IRS matter, TIGTA audited the agency’s screening practices and determined that they were inappropriate. Former IRS official Lois Lerner, who retired soon after the issues came to light, refused to testify about the issue at two hearings, prompting the House to hold her in contempt of Congress in a largely party-line vote.


Lois Lerner, former director of the Internal Revenue Service’s exempt organizations office. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg).

The GSA scandal also came to light through an inspector general’s investigation, which was released in April 2012. Four congressional committees subsequently held hearings on the agency’s conference spending.

Apologies

Once the allegations are substantiated, the apologies begin. Sometimes it happens before the official reports come out, as was the case when Lerner acknowledged the IRS’s inappropriate actions in response to a planted question at a legal conference.

With the VA issue, Shinseki apologized for the department’s scheduling problems in front of a friendly crowd at the annual conference for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a group that the VA had worked with closely under Shinseki.


Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. (EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo).

After more than a week of calls for the secretary to step down from members of both parties, as well as the nation’s largest veterans group, Shinseki received a standing ovation as soon as he entered the room to make his address. He offered his resignation to President Obama at the White House shortly after the event.

As for the GSA scandal, the agency’s former administrator, Martha Johnson, acknowledged a “significant misstep” at the GSA, saying “taxpayer dollars were squandered.” She made the admission in her resignation letter.

Consequences

As we mentioned, Shinseki offered his resignation shortly after his remarks to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He said before departing that he removed three officials from the Phoenix clinic. He also promised that the department would hold accountable any other employees responsible for the inappropriate scheduling practices.

With the IRS, Lerner retired in September, just over four months after the scandal broke. Obama also forced the resignation of former Interim IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who stepped down days after the inspector general’s report came out in May 2013, and former IRS legal expert Carter Hull also stepped down shortly after the release.

As for the GSA, Johnson wasn’t the only official to lose her job over the lavish conference. The agency also fired two of her top deputies and placed four managers on leave, although the Merit Systems Protection Board later ordered the reinstatement of the two executives who were terminated. The GSA has appealed those decisions. 

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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