Issa sets hearing on inspector general vacancies

In the wake of an inspector general report that exposed wasteful spending in the General Services Administration, lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration about similar positions being vacant in several other agencies.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on 10 vacancies, including seven that have lasted longer than a year.

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The State Department position has been vacant since Jan. 16, 2008. President Obama has yet to nominate someone for the position. Interior has been vacant for more than 1,150 days, and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction more than 440 days, according to a vacancy tracker maintained by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Acting inspectors general have been temporarily filling the positions.

“I can’t imagine a president would tolerate not having a secretary of state, a secretary of defense, a secretary of homeland security, or a secretary of interior,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee. “Likewise, tolerating inspector general vacancies at these departments and other agencies hampers oversight and sends the wrong message about what should be an unequivocal commitment to accountable government.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the administration is working to fill the jobs.

“The administration is committed to strong inspectors general, and we are working diligently to identify highly qualified candidates to fill these important posts,” Schultz said. “The administration supports the work and commitment of all of the IG offices, including those currently being led by acting IGs, as they strive to ensure that taxpayers are getting the good government they deserve.”

Serving as an acting inspector general can come with its own problems, said Jake Wiens, of POGO, who will testify before Issa’s committee Thursday.

Powers invested in the office might be the same, he said, but there are often problems of perception, especially when the acting official is vying for the permanent job.

“If you become a thorn, the administration is less likely to pick you as permanent IG. There’s a potential for conflict there,” he said.

H. David Kotz, who left as inspector general for the Securities and Exchange Commission in January, agreed.

“Acting IGs have performed well. But it’s difficult to utilize the full effect of an office in an acting function,” Kotz said, adding that some agencies might be prone to riding out an acting inspector general to prevent embarrassing investigations.

Harry W. Geisel has been deputy inspector general of the State Department since 2008. Because the president has yet to nominate an inspector general, Geisel has been the senior leader for four years. During his tenure, audits and inspections have risen 56 percent between 2008 and 2011, the number of open investigations went from 36 in fiscal year 2007 to 99 in fiscal year 2011, according to OIG spokesman Douglas P. Welty.

An assistant inspector general, who declined to be named for this article, gave Geisel’s leadership effusive praise and called him the best inspector general she has worked for.

“I know independence keeps coming up but I think that’s an unfair characterization in this case,” the assistant inspector general said.

The federal government has 73 inspectors general offices, which conduct audits into agency waste, fraud and abuse. The result can save taxpayers billions a year. Their work in 2009 saved $43.3 billion in public funds, according to a September 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Sometimes investigations have enormous impact. On April 2, the inspector general for the GSA released a scathing report about an employee training conference in Las Vegas that cost more than $800,000. It cost the agency director and two deputies their jobs. Martha N. Johnson resigned and her two deputies were fired just before the report’s release. Ten employees involved in planning the conference have been placed on administrative leave, and at least one, Jeff Neely, might face criminal charges.

Since the report, GSA’s acting administrator, Dan Tangherlini, has canceled more than 30 GSA conferences and other agencies are minding their spending on projects that could be seen as frivolous, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posting, then retracting an ad for a motivational magician for an employee conference.

Thirty-two of the 73 inspector general positions require presidential appointment. Most of Obama’s inspector general nominees have been confirmed within 120 days, Wiens said.

Inspector general vacancy periods averaged 453 days under Bill Clinton and 280 days under George W. Bush, according to figures reported in the 2009 Southern California Law Review. Obama is averaging better than those figures.

But some Obama nominees have hit snags in Congress.

Obama’s choice for the Department of Homeland Security was blocked in the Senate after nominee Roslyn Mazer, then inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was accused of being a micromanager.

In May 2011, President Obama withdrew the name of Paul Tiao, his Labor Department pick, following conflict of interest concerns over a political action committee he helped found that was largely backed by unions. Labor’s vacancy has lasted more than 1,000 days.

In March the Senate confirmed Michael E. Horowitz for the Justice Department. In April the Senate confirmed Christy Romero as special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“There are people out there, qualified people who are interested in becoming inspector general,” Kotz said. “That’s the good news. There are a lot of good people in the pipeline and we need to move them.”

Also scheduled to testify Thursday is Phyllis K. Fong, inspector general of the Department of Agriculture and chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. Fong declined to comment for this story.

 
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