A Government Watchdog Who Led the Pack

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Kenneth M. Mead has spent his career as a government watchdog, telling lawmakers and bureaucrats what they don't want to hear.

He is, in the words of one man who has written a book on inspectors general, among the top 10 in a profession that is little known outside the Beltway but someone to whom taxpayers, airline passengers and Amtrak riders owe a debt of gratitude.

Last week, Mead, 56, stepped down as the Transportation Department's inspector general after nine years, the longest tenure for that position. Over that time, he pointed out management problems with Boston's infamous $14.6 billion Big Dig highway project, sent covert teams to test the nation's airport security system, and dispatched auditors to cities around the world to keep tabs on where U.S. airlines are farming out maintenance.

Mead will begin his new career today, helping build the transportation law practice in the Washington office of Baker Botts LLP.

Co-workers said Mead draws his energy from a love for transportation policy. He devoured every line -- including footnotes -- of the 1,056 reports prepared by his staff during his tenure and commonly asked for drafts while on vacation. Aides said they were amused by Mead's yearly enthusiasm to be one of the first to grab the conference committee report on transportation appropriations, hot off the press, so he could take it home after work.

"I could not have been the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, or, say, the Interior," Mead said with a hint of mock disdain. "Transportation affects everyone, every day. To be part of the solution is what turns me on."

Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, called Mead "the dean of his generation of inspectors general," known as IGs, who must navigate serving the public interest around the politics of Congress and the White House.

Too often, Light said, inspectors general are out for publicity or are political appointees who focus on small fraud cases without tackling bigger problems. Light is the author of "Monitoring Government: Inspectors General and the Search for Accountability."

Light said Mead was known as a straight shooter, concerned about the larger problems. "His first principle was to fix the problem, don't just identify it," Light said.

Mead has been criticized by airline lobbyists, who felt he sometimes overemphasized safety risks, although labor unions praised him. Mead's office issued several reports criticizing the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of rapidly growing third-party maintenance facilities across the country and overseas, as U.S. carriers send more and more aircraft to be repaired at a fraction of the cost they would pay their own employees.

Transportation officials often grumbled that Mead's office received more money -- leaping from $44 million in 1999 to $69 million in the current fiscal year -- while their budgets were trimmed. The officials did not want to be named because they said they respect and like Mead, but they suggested that the money allowed his investigators to conduct audits that exceeded the original scope.

But for a job that requires delivering mostly bad news, Mead had few critics because of the way he reached out to them and tried to solve problems.

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