Report Details Limitations Faced By Federal Inspectors General

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Inspectors general appointed to uncover waste, fraud and misconduct in federal agencies often lead underfunded and poorly staffed units and are not as independent as the public has been led to believe, according to a study released yesterday by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

The study noted that more than half the 64 inspectors general are not appointed by the president or subject to Senate confirmation hearings. They are appointed by agency heads who in many cases control the watchdogs' budgets and have on occasion retaliated against them over unfavorable reports by cutting funding or denying promotions to staff members, the report said.

"The inescapable conclusion is that an IG who lacks independence is an impostor -- even calling such an office 'Inspector General' confuses the press and public and can create pitfalls for potential whistleblowers," the nonprofit advocacy group concluded.

The current system was created by the Inspector General Act of 1978, which Congress passed in an effort to place controls on government agencies after the Watergate and other scandals.

A 2006 report to the president showed that audits by inspectors general resulted in potential savings of nearly $10 billion and that financial recoveries from investigations netted another $7 billion. Investigations also led to 6,500 indictments or charges, 950 civil actions and more than 7,000 suspensions and debarments.

Jane Lee, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the watchdog system, said the POGO report proves that "IGs are as effective today as they have ever been." She said that, contrary to POGO's report, the IGs "help identify and eliminate waste" and that, since the start of the Bush administration, "there is more transparency and public reporting about what is working and not."

But the report said the inspectors general lack the tools for independence that would give their investigations more bite. It includes a survey of inspectors general: 30 appointed by the president and 34 appointed by the heads, generally, of smaller agencies.

Inspectors general appointed by the president for agencies such as the Agriculture and State departments reported having staffs that include hundreds of auditors, investigators and other personnel, as well as a staff attorney for legal matters.

But respondents at smaller agencies reported having much smaller staffs, and few had an independent legal counsel. The one at the Election Assistance Commission has a single staff member. Those at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the International Trade Commission have two each, greatly limiting their ability to launch and complete audits or investigations.

The report highlighted the hostility inspectors general sometimes face. When then-Smithsonian Institution Inspector General Debra S. Ritt refused to end an audit of high-ranking officials, for example, her budget was cut, and she resigned, according to the report.

Paul Brachfeld, inspector general for the National Archives, praised the study. He said his staff of 18, which includes three investigators, is not big enough to monitor an agency that has 3,000 employees, 30 facilities, and treasure troves of historic and classified documents.

"You can't be the sheriff of Mayberry with three criminal investigators," Brachfeld said. Inspectors general "are independent in intent, but there are pressures that fall upon you that make it difficult. I still receive an evaluation from the head of the agency. Sometimes at risk to yourself, you have to reach out for support outside the agency," he said.

POGO recommends the creation of a council of inspectors general so they could share staffs and independent lawyers. The group suggests setting fixed terms for inspectors general and providing their offices with budgets in which expenditures would not require the approval of agency heads. The group also says inspectors general should be prohibited from accepting cash awards and bonuses, but that their pay should be raised.

Legislation pending in the House and the Senate calls for remedies favored by the advocacy group. Separate bills in the House and the Senate would create a slate of qualified candidates who could be called upon when positions open, to ensure that vacancies are filled by people with accounting, auditing, investigation and management skills.

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