The General Accounting Office has expanded its investigation of Health and Human Services Inspector General Janet Rehnquist, the daughter of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, beyond its initial focus on widespread personnel changes in her office.
According to congressional investigators, the GAO is now also looking into allegations involving the delay in an audit of a Florida pension fund that could have benefited Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the unauthorized possession of a gun by Rehnquist and the shredding of documents after the GAO inquiry had begun.
Ben St. John, a spokesman for Rehnquist, confirmed that these additional elements have become part of the GAO inquiry, which he said HHS officials do not consider an investigation but a "management review." The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
Rehnquist, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria who worked in the White House under then-President George H.W. Bush, supervises a staff of about 1,600, the largest Office of Inspector General (OIG) at any federal agency. One of the office's main tasks is to investigate allegations of fraud and waste in the huge Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs that are administered by HHS.
The GAO first began looking at the operations of Rehnquist's office in October in response to a request from Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and John Breaux (D-La.). In a letter to top GAO officials, the three senators said they were concerned "about the impact of the loss or reassignment of several senior managers on OIG operations."
In a separate statement, Grassley said that, since Rehnquist was confirmed in August 2001, there had been 19 senior staff changes in the office, including the retirement, resignation or reassignment of six deputy inspectors general, most of whom had at least 30 years experience at the agency.
"I want the GAO to determine whether the loss or transfer of these key people will erode this office's performance," Grassley said at the time.
Since that initial request, the GAO inquiry has branched out into other areas, including an almost six-month delay earlier this year in beginning an audit of a Florida state government pension fund at a time that Gov. Bush, President Bush's brother, was facing a tough reelection battle. The audit, scheduled to begin in April, did not start until September, ensuring that any potentially embarrassing results would not be known until well after the Nov. 5 election in which Bush eventually won a second term.
St. John said the audit was delayed at least three times at the request of Florida officials. He said that at least the first request, seeking a delay because the pension fund was about to get a new director, came from Gov. Bush's office and was referred to Rehnquist.
But St. John said that the delays were not linked to Florida politics, and that the outcome of the audit would not have been known until after the election even if the audit had started in April.
A congressional investigator disputed that assertion, saying that interviews with people in Florida indicated that the audit would have been done before Nov. 5.
June Gibbs Brown, Rehnquist's predecessor at HHS who served as IG at four federal agencies, said in an interview that requests to delay an audit are unusual and rarely reach the head of the IG office.
Late yesterday, Rehnquist released internal documents on the audit decision and a letter to Grassley in which she said "my decision to delay the audit was based on the merits and not motivated by political reasons." According to an internal e-mail message that Rehnquist released, before the audit was delayed, OIG officials expected a draft report on the audit by Sept. 30, more than a month before the election.
Rehnquist confirmed yesterday that the delay request came from Kathleen Shanahan, Jeb Bush's chief of staff. Rehnquist said her staff advised her that it was a "reasonable request."
Congressional investigators said they have also determined that Rehnquist, who apparently has become a shooting enthusiast but is not licensed to own a gun, had an unloaded handgun in her office for a short time.
St. John said he knew nothing about a handgun, but confirmed that Rehnquist at one point had a laser gun in her office that she used to practice aiming at a poster of a human figure. A laser gun does not shoot bullets, but aims a beam of light.
Another source said Rehnquist exchanged the handgun, apparently a 9mm pistol, for the laser gun at the suggestion of another HHS official, who also gave her the poster of a "menacing man" at which to aim.
Rehnquist herself confirmed the document-shredding allegations in a letter last week to Grassley and Baucus. She said that in late November, GAO officials told her office they had reports of documents being shredded, and that in response she ordered a halt to the destruction of all documents.
"We do not have any reason to believe that whatever documents that recently may have been shredded have any significance or impact on the GAO review," Rehnquist said in the letter.
St. John said document-shredding was "routine" at the OIG, adding that "the public needs to understand this isn't some unusual event where we are trying to cover something up."