Set to retire, stimulus watchdog Earl Devaney tried to stay above the fray

December 11, 2011

Ask stimulus watchdog Earl Devaney about the economic program and he’ll tell you that federal agencies are distributing about $840 billion in a transparent, relatively fraud-free way. Ask him about much-
debated questions — whether the program spurred job creation, saved the economy or faced political pressure from the Obama administration — and he shifts in his seat.

Politics, Devaney said, was never part of his job description.

Since 2009, he’s served as the head of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which Congress set up to deal with the logistics of the stimulus. Devaney and his team of 50 auditors and investigators track the funds, keeping watch for waste or fraud.

“There was very little, if any, politics involved in all of this,” Devaney said in a recent interview.

And now, he said, he’s done. On Dec. 1 he announced that he will retire at the end of the month, after 41 years of federal service.

Devaney did concede that the Energy Department’s decision to give hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus grants to the now-bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra appears to have been mishandled.

“Maybe the Department of Energy was engaged in business that they didn’t really have that great an expertise in,” he said.

Whatever the issues there — or not — Devaney said, his office wouldn’t have picked up on the circumstances, because “we didn’t have anything to do with who got the [stimulus] money. We had everything to do with showing it to you and trying to prevent it from being stolen and wasted.”

In that, he said, the office succeeded.

“I think this money was so transparent that guys that really commit big frauds and try to steal big money just stayed with the old tried-and-true fraud and waste like Medicare fraud and didn’t come near this money,” he said.

Despite early concerns with the reliability of data compiled by the board and the speed with which it was published, transparency experts generally agree that De­vaney’s efforts broke new ground on how the public reviews federal spending information.

Working in four agencies over four decades, Devaney honed a reputation as a nonpartisan fixer. The announcement of his retirement even prompted a rare bit of agreement between the White House and congressional Republicans.

In a statement, Vice President Biden said Devaney kept watch of the stimulus program “with an unprecedented level of transparency.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) agreed. “Supporters of accountable government will miss the energy, tenacity and innovation” De­vaney brought to the job, Issa said.

In early 2009, after almost a decade as the Interior Department’s inspector general, De­vaney was invited to a meeting with Biden to discuss the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board job.

Devaney had already promised his wife, Judy, that he would soon retire.

“I practiced all weekend saying no” to Biden, Devaney recalled. “Something like ‘I’m really honored’ or ‘Let me give you some names you could consider instead of me.’ ”

But Biden gave him the ultimate hard sell: He walked Devaney into the Oval Office, where President Obama offered him the job.

“I hadn’t practiced saying no to a president,” Devaney joked.

Ten minutes later, he was on national television standing before a room full of governors. Devaney said he took the assignment after assurances that he would be responsible for the nuts and bolts of the program while Obama and Biden handled the politics.

The board taps dozens of federal databases, social-media sites and news reports to track the names and history of every recipient of federal stimulus dollars. Suspicious cases of potential waste, fraud or abuse are referred to federal inspectors general or the Justice Department for review.

Over the course of their work together, Devaney said, Biden “was all about making sure this money didn’t get wasted or stolen. He felt his own reputation was on the line.”

So was Devaney’s. He had built a career in Washington as the guy who handles tough assignments while staying above the political fray.

“If you take on a tough assignment, like a total rehab of a program, or building a new one, you’re either going to look smart or you’re going to fail,” he said.

A former Cape Cod garbageman, Devaney joined the Secret Service in 1970 — with a $7,500 salary — and once dodged bullets fired by a woman who mistook him for Gerald R. Ford. He retired from the agency in 1991 after bolstering its unit on white-collar crime.

He moved on to the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement division, hiring 200 new agents. Nine years later, Bill Clinton nominated him to serve as Interior’s inspector general, making Devaney a Washington rarity: a career federal employee who became a political appointee.

At Interior, Devaney discovered that officials with the Minerals Management Service had engaged in illegal drug use and sexual activity with subordinates and government contractors, cases that contributed to the agency’s eventual demise after the Gulf Coast oil spill. His office also contributed to the investigations that led to the conviction of former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“I’m quite frankly . . . disappointed that more people didn’t go to jail,” Devaney said. Others would have been punished “if we had a little bit more aggressive approach” in seeking out Abramoff’s accomplices, he said.

Being aggressive wasn’t a problem for the accountability board, Devaney said, but the stimulus came with plenty of high-profile heat. Economists largely agree that the stimulus helped slow the economy’s free fall, yet debate rages. Republicans say it failed, while some Democrats say it helped and should have been larger.

Devaney got tagged by critics who said the board published incorrect or incomplete information. It didn’t help that the Recovery.gov site at one point listed incorrect or nonexistent Zip codes in some congressional districts.

But Craig Jennings, director of fiscal policy for the nonpartisan OMB Watch, said Devaney’s willingness to listen to critics earned him bipartisan goodwill.

Devaney’s work “has been a big win for transparency,” Jennings said. “We’re likely to see this depth of transparency expand into all federal spending.”

In hindsight, Devaney said Congress should have provided cash-strapped city and state governments with money to manage the aid’s quick distribution. During a 2009 visit to the Colorado controller’s office, he said he found top bosses surrounded by empty desks, because most rank-and-file employees were on a two-day furlough.

“It just put a horrible burden on our state and local counterparts,” Devaney said. “To the extent we could help them, we did.”

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Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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