Bailout Lacks Oversight Despite Billions Pledged

Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, welcomes the change in the bailout program's focus to injections of capital.
Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, welcomes the change in the bailout program's focus to injections of capital. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

In the six weeks since lawmakers approved the Treasury's massive bailout of financial firms, the government has poured money into the country's largest banks, recruited smaller banks into the program and repeatedly widened its scope to cover yet other types of businesses, from insurers to consumer lenders.

Along the way, the Bush administration has committed $290 billion of the $700 billion rescue package.

Yet for all this activity, no formal action has been taken to fill the independent oversight posts established by Congress when it approved the bailout to prevent corruption and government waste. Nor has the first monitoring report required by lawmakers been completed, though the initial deadline has passed.

"It's a mess," said Eric M. Thorson, the Treasury Department's inspector general, who has been working to oversee the bailout program until the newly created position of special inspector general is filled. "I don't think anyone understands right now how we're going to do proper oversight of this thing."

In approving the rescue package, lawmakers trumpeted provisions in the legislation that established layers of independent scrutiny, including a special inspector general to be nominated by the White House and a congressional oversight panel to be named by lawmakers themselves.

Some lawmakers and their aides fear that political squabbling on Capitol Hill and bureaucratic logjams could delay their work for months. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office, which also has some oversight responsibilities, is worried about the difficulty of hiring people who can understand the intensely complicated financial work involved.

The legislation grants the special inspector, who is expected to be the primary overseer of the program, a budget of $50 million. The measure calls for him to conduct audits and investigations of how the government spends money under the bailout program, including on equity investments in firms. In particular, he is to report about any assets acquired and their value, plus an explanation of why they were acquired and details on individuals or companies involved in the transactions.

The leading candidate for the post is Neil M. Barofsky, a federal prosecutor in New York, and his nomination could come as soon as this week, according to people familiar with the matter.

Barofsky, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, is the chief of the office's mortgage fraud group and the lead prosecutor in the $2.4 billion accounting-fraud case against former executives of the collapsed financial firm Refco. He was formerly a white-collar criminal defense attorney in New York.

It is unclear that Barofsky would be confirmed by the Senate, as required, anytime soon. One complicating factor is a battle between the Finance and Banking committees over which has jurisdiction over the confirmation process. Spokeswomen for both panels said the issue has not been resolved and may not be until after President Bush names his choice.

Nonetheless, the finance committee has scheduled a hearing for Monday afternoon in the event that a nominee is named.

Several congressional aides, however, said they did not understand how the Senate could possibly do all the proper vetting for such a critical appointment in just a few days. Thorson's confirmation process, for example, took nearly a year. But Treasury officials and Senate aides worry that if the nominee is not confirmed next week, when Congress is back in town for a lame-duck session, then the process might be delayed well into next year.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company