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Government watchdogs are given their due

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

There was no red carpet or pregame show. No musical acts or (good) jokes. No celebrity appearances, and perhaps best of all, the ceremony didn't drag on for hours (just 58 minutes).

But the awards distributed Tuesday at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium honored achievements much more noble than "best supporting actor" or "best on-screen kiss." They heralded the federal watchdogs who last year investigated and audited their way to taxpayer savings.

In fiscal 2008, inspectors general identified $18.6 billion in potential savings, and their work resulted in more than 6,800 successful criminal prosecutions, according to a report by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) , which hosted the awards. Watchdogs issued more than 6,900 audit, inspection or evaluation reports, handled about 5,000 suspensions, and processed nearly 338,000 complaints to telephone or online hot lines.

"You have a different kind of job. . . . You're the guardians of the public. Your job is to protect the people from the excesses of government," said David C. Williams, inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service and co-chairman of the awards program.

Put another way, Williams joked: "In many places and in many times, presenting the kinds of reports that you did would not receive an award. It would be punishable by death."

Tuesday's winners included Crystal L. Johnson, an assistant special agent with the General Services Administration's inspector general office, who was honored for 12 years of fraud investigations. Johnson helped close a 2003 case regarding alleged violations of the Trade Agreements Act that recovered $27 million from vendors. A 2007 investigation involving a software firm recovered another $98 million.

"My dad was in law enforcement, and I though it'd be something I'd enjoy," Johnson said of her watchdog career.

She said the public's biggest misconception about inspectors general is that "we're really just out to get people." Instead, she said, "We don't assume anybody's guilty, we look at the facts, and then we tell the facts after that."

Helen Ceglia won a similar achievement award for her work leading the Labor Department's Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud Investigations. Her team generally probes unions or benefit plans infiltrated by organized crime. The office recently completed a case involving the Gambino crime family that led to the conviction of 61 people.

"I just took a great deal of satisfaction in working on cases with corrupt pension providers," she said in an interview, noting that she is the first woman promoted to director of her office.

It's been a year of big adjustments for government watchdogs. The new CIGIE, established by the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act, became the umbrella organization for the 69 federal inspectors general and their training and political outreach efforts. Lawmakers and good-government groups raised questions about the independence of watchdogs when President Obama fired the inspector general at the Corporation for National and Community Service, and when the special inspector general for the Treasury's Troubled Assets Relief Program suggested that officials were interfering with his work. The workload of most watchdogs has ballooned as they try to track hundreds of billions of dollars distributed by the economic stimulus program.

"You're not called in for the easy problems, you're called in for the hard problems," Jeffrey Zients, White House chief performance officer and CIGIE executive chairman, told the crowd Tuesday. "You're oftentimes not the most popular person in the room, and I'm sure at times that's very lonely."

Regardless, he added: "We are in a period of urgency. This is not a period of business-as-usual or incremental change."

On a personal note

Joe Davidson returns to this space Thursday after his medical leave, and it's been a thrill and a humbling honor to serve in his absence. Joe and his predecessors have been the stewards of one of the longest-running columns in The Washington Post, providing a unique service not only to Washington area feds but to thousands of federal workers stationed nationwide and around the world. (As substitute Diarist, I know this because I heard from many of you.) My reporting on the federal government will continue to appear alongside Joe's on the Fed Page, in other parts of the A section and online at my blog, the Federal Eye, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/federaleye.

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