Into the Oversight Void Step the Inspectors General

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

When a Chicago newspaper reported in 2004 that Illinois ranked last in federal disability payments to veterans, the secretary of veterans affairs -- prodded by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other influential lawmakers -- turned to his department's inspector general for an explanation.

After four months, 1,900 interviews and a review of 2,100 disability claims, a team of 36 auditors found reasons that veterans in top-ranked New Mexico got an average of $12,004 in annual disability payments while Illinois veterans received $6,961. Their 192-page report made eight recommendations for addressing the inequity, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is implementing many of them.

"It's a really big project," said Michael L. Staley, assistant inspector general for auditing, who led the effort. "Our national reviews generally take about 11 months, and we accomplished this from January to April."

For their labor, Staley and his team recently picked up the Alexander Hamilton Award. The annual honor recognizes the foremost effort by an inspector general to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of executive branch operations.

Created by an act of Congress in 1978, "IGs," as they are known, can trace their roots to the Continental Army, which had an inspector general independently assess the readiness of combat troops. Their modern mission is to foster integrity and efficiency in government through the prevention and detection of waste, fraud and abuse.

Initially Congress created 12 independent audit and investigative offices, and every affected agency opposed them. Over the past 27 years, inspectors general have become a fixture of the bureaucracy. Their ranks have grown to 57 -- more than half appointed by the president -- and their offices employ 11,400 auditors, investigators, inspectors and other professionals.

The role of inspectors general has taken on new prominence, as one-party control of Capitol Hill and the White House has dampened the appetite in Congress for close oversight of the executive branch, analysts say.

"They are becoming the de facto overseers of government," said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University and the author of a book on IGs. "As congressional oversight has declined sharply over the last decade, many IGs are getting into areas that were once reserved for the investigatory committees of Congress. And many, but not all of them, have risen to the challenge. . . . Some of these reports are very hard-hitting."

Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, agreed that Congress is not "as aggressive as it needs to be," but not because the GOP dominates the levers of power.

"The executive branch pays more attention to whether we spend money on real needs and whether we get what we pay for than Congress does," said Johnson, who heads the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, an umbrella group of 29 presidentially appointed inspectors general. "That has nothing to do with which party is in charge of what branch."

In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, inspectors general processed 189,500 complaints, identified $18 billion in potential savings through audits, and were instrumental in nearly 6,500 prosecutions that led to convictions or settlements with the Justice Department. They collected $3.5 billion in fines, settlements and voluntary repayments, making the $1.9 billion spent to fund them look like a bargain.

Notable reports last year included a finding by the Transportation Department IG that the Federal Aviation Administration's inspection program had failed to address safety risks posed by airline industry cost-cutting and the rapid growth of budget carriers. A report by the Justice Department IG found that the FBI's failure to detect the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking plot stemmed in part from "widespread and long-standing deficiencies" in the way the agency handled terrorism and intelligence cases.

Last year, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction found federal mismanagement complicated by corruption among government contractors and Iraqi officials that led to at least one criminal indictment.

And more than 350 investigators, auditors and evaluators from the inspectors general offices at the Department of Homeland Security and other departments were dispatched to scrutinize federal spending in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The job can bring as much grief as acclaim. Before becoming IG at the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2002, J. Russell George, then a staff director for a House subcommittee, called around to current and former IGs to ask what the job was like: "The vast majority of them said, 'Don't do it,' " he said.

George was told that IGs considered too aggressive by the White House can be perceived as too docile by Congress. He took the job anyway, and last year he was promoted by President Bush to be the inspector general overseeing the Internal Revenue Service.

"There's no question that being an IG is difficult," said George, who says he likes his work. "It's human nature that people many times do not like to be criticized or to be told that what they are doing is either wrong or could be done better. That is exactly what we as IGs have to do."

Some IGs are as controversial as the agencies they oversee.

Pentagon Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz resigned in September after learning that he was the target of a congressional inquiry into whether he had blocked two criminal probes. Janet Rehnquist resigned the IG's post at the Department of Health and Human Services in June 2003, ending a controversial 22-month tenure in which she improperly kept a firearm in her office and initiated personnel changes that led at least 20 senior managers to retire, resign or be reassigned. That same summer, U.S. Postal Service Inspector General Karla W. Corcoran retired after a federal investigation found that she abused her authority, spent more than $1 million on each of three employee award ceremonies and conducted questionable personnel practices.

A few critics say the work of inspectors general has been undermined by politics. A 2004 report by the Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee found that fewer than 20 percent of inspectors general appointed by Bush had audit experience, while nearly two-thirds had held political positions, such as working for a GOP member of Congress or in a Republican White House. Under President Bill Clinton, more than 60 percent had audit experience and fewer than one-quarter had held political positions, the report said.

Yet, as Light, the government professor, pointed out, "Yes, there are more politicals, but some have become very aggressive IGs."

Clark Kent Ervin, a Texan who served in Bush's gubernatorial administration, got the inspector general's job at the Department of Homeland Security through a recess appointment because the Senate would not schedule a confirmation vote. Once in, Ervin became a thorn in then-Secretary Tom Ridge's side, issuing reports critical of spending and management practices at DHS agencies. He left in December 2004 (the expiration of his appointment) when it became clear that the White House would not renominate him.

"Here's a guy who was being groomed as a political type, but they canned him as quickly as possible," Light said.

Kenneth M. Mead, the IG at the Transportation Department, said inspectors general must set politics aside and "speak truth to power."

"It's important that the IG be a player," Mead said. "If you don't go after the big issues, you can be marginalized. I think it's important that we're not just sitting around looking at vouchers."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company