Metro has kept its Office of Inspector General (OIG) under such tight control that the transit agency at one time installed keystroke monitors that could see what the watchdog was up to, a Senate panel says.

The panel also found that even when Metro’s new inspector general, Geoffrey Cherrington, was writing in response to the congressional panel’s inquiries  this year, he was urged to clear his correspondence with Metro’s board.

The findings — contained in a letter from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld —  are among several suggesting that the transit agency’s inspector general lacks the necessary independence to perform its oversight duties and keep the public informed of the results.

The letter — dated Tuesday and signed by  Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the panel’s chairman, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) —  asks Wiedefeld to brief the committee on how Metro oversees its own overseer. The panel’s letter also makes the pitch that a stronger OIG would mean better oversight and transparency at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

“We believe the safety and reliability of the WMATA system would benefit from an independent inspector general,” the letter says.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel characterized the keystroke monitoring as the work of a “rogue” employee who had access to network security and was discovered to be monitoring the Inspector General’s office. He said once the matter was brought to the former general manager’s attention, the employee was terminated.  He said the agency does not monitor OIG computers. He referred other questions about the role of the OIG to the OIG and the Metro board.

The role of Metro’s inspector general has come under scrutiny as Metro struggles to overcome years of neglect and questionable safety practices. Four years ago, the OIG opened an investigation into allegations that Metro inspectors had been falsifying  reports after examining bridges, tunnels and platforms. The OIG forwarded its findings to top Metro officials but did not make the report public at the time. No disciplinary action was taken against any Metro employees.

Yet  the OIG report — which was obtained through a public records request — prefigured the sort of lapses that led to mass firings in its track inspections department beginning late last year. Cherrington, in an effort to improve transparency, has amended the OIG policy on releasing information about investigations. He was appointed to the post in March and began his term April 17.

The Senate panel’s letter makes clear that the OIG’s powers have been limited through no fault of its own, and lists several  factors that explain why the in-house watchdog operates on an unusually tight leash.

The inspector general lacks independent legal counsel, forcing the office to request legal advice from Metro’s general counsel. The inspector general lacks the authority to publish audit reports online without first obtaining approval from a committee that includes Metro officials, the letter says. The watchdog also lacks its own procurement authority, a situation that could compromise the independence of an investigation, and it shares the same computer system with Metro, which would allow any agency employee with the appropriate administrative rights to sign into the OIG system to see what it was working on. In addition, the inspector general has to rely on Metro’s personnel department to supply staffing.

And when the OIG discovered that its computer keyboards were under surveillance, it had to ask the general manager to intervene to have them removed. (The letter, quoting Cherrington, offers no other details.)

“WMATA has failed to empower its OIG properly as an independent watchdog,” the letter says. The panel asked for Metro’s response by Dec. 5. A link to the letter is here:

–This post has been updated

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