John Roth became inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security in March, taking responsibility for the audits and investigations of a sprawling agency that still experiences growing pains after forming in the wake of 9/11.
DHS handles a broad range of duties, including border security, airport screenings, emergency management and protecting the executive in chief. President Obama nominated Roth to take over the watchdog office amid allegations that former inspector general Charles Edwards softened reports to avoid embarrassing the administration.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), ranking member of a Senate panel that was investigating Edwards, has said that the next inspector general needs to restore “integrity” and “independence” to the watchdog office. Roth used those same words while explaining the keys to effective oversight during an interview this week with the Federal Eye.
Below is an edited transcript of the discussion:
Eye: What are the most important qualities for an inspector general?
JR: The signature of an IG is its independence and its integrity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. Basically, you put out a report, and you put your credibility on the line every single time. So it’s important to be independent. It’s also important to get it right and to do the kinds of fact-checking and sweating the details to make sure people can rely on the products that you put out there.
Eye: Your predecessor, Charles Edwards, allegedly filtered reports to avoid embarrassing the Obama administration. Have you ever felt that kind of pressure?
JR: Absolutely not.
Eye: How do you think that kind of thing happens?
JR: I can’t speculate on what happened in the past. I wasn’t here for it. I will say that most thinking people, when they look at it, realize that if you lose your objectivity and your independence, you have no utility to anyone — you have no utility to Congress, not to the administration, and you certainly don’t have any utility to the American people.
One of the things I mentioned to [Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson] when I first met him is that I’m the only person out of your 225,000 employees who is statutorily protected in order to tell you the truth. And he gets that and understands that the value I have is my independence. So I have not caught a whiff of that. Just the opposite, people bend over backwards to make sure that I won’t take things the wrong way or they’re not attempting to influence me.
Eye: How did you feel about the allegations against Edwards?
JR: I was mindful about what was in the papers, and, frankly, that was one of the attractions to the job — to be able to turn an organization around and be able to contribute and commit myself to something that was very important. I believe it is critically important to get it right with regard to DHS.
Eye: Inspectors general often take criticism for being too tough or too lenient. How do you strike a balance between the two?
JR: Your job is not to please people. There are times when, one week, this component is mad at me, and the next week, this component is mad at me, and then the next week, Congress is mad at me, and then maybe the public is mad at me. That is life as an IG. It reminds me of a Harry S. Truman line: If you want a friend in this town, go buy a dog.
I made a commitment when I took this job to enforce the law fairly, and I have to live with myself. There are a lot of unhappy people. We’ve done some work, for example on [administratively uncontrollable overtime], and as a result, people have gotten their pay taken away. It’s very hard to do, but the law is what the law is, and you have to do what you need to do.
It is hard. There’s no question. One of the IGs I talked to described it as straddling a barbed-wire fence. You have Congress on one side and the administration on the other, and you know where the barbed wire is.
Eye: How do you decide what to investigate or audit?
JR: We look at risk. The virtue about DHS is we’re not sitting around worried about what to look at, because there are risks everywhere we look. The [Government Accountability Office] has a long history of putting DHS on the high-risk list, which is their short-hand for things we ought to pay attention to. So there’s a whole series of risks: acquisition management, grant management, the money that goes out to FEMA. And then we are the internal-affairs police for the largest police agency in the country.
When you put all those things together, there’s ample work to do. But we think the growth area here, where we ought to be focusing our time, is on acquisition management — being able to create efficiencies out of the things we buy and the services we get, because I think there’s a lot of room for improvement there.
Eye: What goes through your mind as you’re reading a report to make sure it’s ready for release?
JR: It certainly has to be right, and it has to be clear and well-written. I have the five-minute rule. I want a reasonably educated adult to be able to look at any report that we have, and within the first five minutes be able to say what happened, why it happened and how do we fix it. If we can get that right, I think we’re going a long way toward having that kind of influence.
I noticed you picked up our Boy Scout report [an investigation into whether a Customs and Border Protection officer had pointed a gun at a Boy Scout]. It’s tiny and sort of trivial, but I think it’s important for people to understand that there’s somebody there looking at this stuff, and they should have some confidence they’ll be treated professionally when they cross an international border.
Eye: People hear “border officer draws gun on Boy Scout,” and they’re wondering whether border officers are out of control.
JR: Right, and we needed to follow up on that right away. It wouldn’t been any good to six months later write a report on what happened. I thought it was important to be as timely as we possibly could.
Eye: Before you arrived, the inspector general’s office was investigating whether Alejandro Mayorkas, who is now the No. 2 at DHS, improperly helped foreign investors obtain U.S. visas while serving as head of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. Are you looking into that?
JR: During my confirmation, I was asked about that, because it made the media at that point, that there was in fact an investigation of him — a non-criminal investigation. I had committed in my hearing — I think on three separate occasions, or it might have been four — to continue that investigation, so that investigation is continuing, but I can’t talk about anything.
Eye: What are the benefits of being a permanent IG as opposed to acting?
JR: You have that comfort that comes with the fact that you have protections in place. Removing me is a fairly significant burden to do so. We have all sorts of protections that an acting [inspector general] does not have.
Ultimately, it’s an act of courage to tell truth to power. So I’m going to get the commissioner of CBP mad at me, or I’m going to get the head of Secret Service mad at me, or I’m going to get general counsel mad at me. It’s nice to be able to understand that I’m not putting my job at risk by doing it.
And I think you can just do more. People know that you’re going to be around. We’re not replaced during the change of administrations, historically. People understand that there’s continuity there, there’s stability, there’s somebody that’s looking out for the best interests of the department over time. I think it’s hugely important.
Eye: You recently signed a letter from 47 inspectors general who said some federal agencies — not including DHS – have hindered oversight efforts by limiting access to records. Why did you add your name on that?
JR: Well, as the letter says, we were writing in solidarity with the other IGs. We are a community, and we like to speak with a community’s voice. And really, it was to emphasize the risks that are involved if agencies decide not to cooperate. There aren’t a lot of enforcement mechanisms. The inspector general act is not self-enforcing. It requires inspectors general of courage and discipline to be able to push all the levers of government that they need to push to be able to do their jobs. But it’s not like I could run to court to compel one of the components to give us information.
At the end of the day, we don’t have a lot of recourse if somebody says “no.” We have the bully pulpit and the fact that we report to Congress, as well as to the heads of our agencies. But it’s a very serious thing. Either the IG Act means what it says or it doesn’t. We believe that it does, and reading in these exceptions [to records access] that are not in the act is bad law and bad policy.