Metro's former inspector general said the office was kept under close watch during her tenure — scrutiny that wasn't applied in her previous job as an assistant IG in a federal agency — days after a Senate panel questioned the independence of Metro's internal watchdog.
Helen Lew said Metro's Office of Inspector General, or OIG, needs more autonomy, similar to that of a federal inspector general's office, which would allow it to call attention to the agency's problems — unencumbered by staff and board interference.
Lew, who became Metro's first inspector general in 2007 and held the job for 10 years, joined calls to increase the office's autonomy and expand its oversight powers, after pleas from her successor for additional resources and questions from federal lawmakers about the internal watchdog's independence.
A letter to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld on Tuesday, written by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, concluded that Metro's inspector general is "not sufficiently independent" from the rest of the transit agency.
Lew said she concurred with her successor Geoff Cherrington's request to the committee for more funding and independence to carry out the office's duties.
Lew conducted several investigations into fraud and corruption at the agency, including one that led to a September 2015 report on structural inspectors who allegedly were falsifying inspection reports. The findings came to light after a rush-hour derailment nearly a year later exposed a pattern of fabrication of track inspections. Lew was often criticized for failing to make the findings of her investigations public. But she says that like Cherrington, she was hamstrung by the agency's control.
"I can identify with all of Geoff's concerns," Lew said. "The oversight of the IG office is very tight there."
Lew, former D.C. chapter president of the Association of Inspectors General, said she wasn't subjected to such oversight in her previous job as the U.S. Education Department's assistant inspector general for audit services. Lew noted that the Metro board, for example, reviews all OIG audits before they can be posted online.
"A federal IG's report doesn't go through that type of scrutiny," she said.
In a letter to a Senate committee in September, Cherrington outlined several issues that he says compromise the office's ability to function independently. The OIG, for example, does not have its own lawyers, instead relying on agency attorneys who have a legal responsibility to protect Metro.
Metro's human resources department controls the compilation and vetting of job candidates, meaning the agency could theoretically weed out those who might aggressively pursue wasteful spending, fraud and corruption. And the office must secure the Metro board's approval before it can release internal audits or reports, allowing the board to determine whether to make public information that is potentially embarrassing to the agency.
Lew offered one example of how institutional rules may have interfered with the relaying of critical information.
In August 2016, parts of the mezzanine ceiling at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station crumbled, prompting the station's closure over safety concerns. Lew said her mind immediately went to the September 2015 memo her office had compiled that documented a pattern of falsification of records in the agency's structural inspections.
Lew's office found that inspectors, under General Manager Richard Sarles, had falsified records, including copying and pasting language from previous reports and passing off old photos as new to illustrate current conditions on bridges, tunnels and platforms. Some inspections had not been performed at all.
"When that happened, I thought of our report and I was wondering 'Okay, what happened here?' Because that's infrastructure," she recalled. "When [General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld] came on, we had already issued that report."
But the report had not been made public, and Wiedefeld was not aware of it, she said, an account a Metro spokesman didn't deny. But the spokesman said Lew did not make an effort to inform Wiedefeld, either.
"The GM arrived . . . in December  and was immediately focused on the emergency issues directly in front of him," Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. "It would have taken Helen bringing to his attention something she thought needed his focus at the time. Unfortunately, that happened after the incident rather than before."
Indeed, the investigation had been completed and new attention had been directed to it by a rush-hour derailment in summer 2016 that exposed a raft of record falsifications in the track inspection department. But its publication was held up by a lengthy review process by Metro's attorneys, Lew said.
"But the problem was, and I got criticized . . . was 'why was it taking so long?' " Lew said. "And we pretty much said that we had to go through a review by counsel."
Stessel said Metro's recently created Quality Assurance, Internal Compliance and Oversight unit, responsible directly to Wiedefeld, is tasked with reporting critical findings — such as OIG discoveries — to the general manager.
Cherrington has privately raised his own concerns over the quality control unit, questioning why Metro has a separate office tasked with some duties similar to the OIG's. In its letter Tuesday, the Senate committee asked Metro for the quality control unit's annual budget and whether it exceeds the OIG's budget — and if so, why.
In comments to reporters Thursday, Wiedefeld suggested one possible resolution for questions about the office's independence: shifting the inspector general's office to the U.S. Transportation Department, similar to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's inspector general.
"If there's a perception issue, then I think being part of the USDOT's IG office is one way to get around that," Wiedefeld said.
But Wiedefeld added that he did not think the Metro board was "constraining" Cherrington and that staff members were not interfering with investigations.
Board Chairman Jack Evans said he did not know of any cases in which the board had interfered with an inspector general's report. But, he told reporters, the board would make efforts to give the OIG authority that resembles the federal model. He urged Congress to provide funding to enable the reforms Cherrington has requested.
"The silver lining to this is that Congress — we now have their attention," Evans said. "The letter to senators, and my admonition to [Johnson and McCaskill] would be, get 5 or 6 or 10 million dollars, whatever it would take, and we'll make this truly an independent inspector general."
Johnson and McCaskill, the authors of Tuesday's Senate committee letter, did not immediately respond to questions about whether they would support measures to shift oversight to the U.S. Transportation Department or provide new funding to the office.
Among the most alarming findings raised in their letter: Five years ago, a Metro employee was found to be "inappropriately monitoring" OIG communications through keystroke-monitoring software installed on OIG computers. Lew discovered the monitoring and reported the incident to Sarles. Metro fired the employee.
"We found wrongdoing and we reported that to the general manager and they took action," Lew said. "There were no hard feelings there."
In his September letter to the Senate committee, Cherrington pushed for IT independence from the agency, including a separate email address for the inspector general, likely to prevent someone from illicitly monitoring the office's correspondence.
Tellingly, the email address currently listed for the tip hotline on the Metro Inspector General's Web page is a Verizon account: email@example.com.