WAS THERE ever a major transit agency in such dire need of a muscular independent watchdog as Metro? Climbing back from years of poor management, shoddy service and safety mishaps, the Washington area’s subway system needs tough oversight, ideally undertaken by its Office of Inspector General.
Yet Metro seems to have turned the tables on its own OIG, limiting its autonomy and reining it in to such a degree that it sometimes seems the agency is monitoring its own monitor. That may protect Metro from embarrassment, but it’s no way to run the nation’s second-busiest subway system.
In its 40-year history, Metro has had just two inspectors general — Helen Lew, who retired earlier this year after a decade in the job, and Geoffrey Cherrington, who succeeded her in April. Both of them have now said publicly — she in her understated way; he in his outspoken one — that Metro has kept the OIG on such a tight leash that its effectiveness has been compromised. Last month, the leaders of a key Senate oversight panel echoed that concern in a letter to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.
The evidence is damning. In recent years, Metro gave short shrift to an OIG report detailing the falsification of infrastructure inspection reports. More recently, it subjected at least one OIG report to such over-the-top redaction as to render it unfit for publication.
It also has hamstrung the OIG by screening its job applicants; forcing it to use Metro’s procurement office (rather than hiring its own outside experts); and denying OIG its own lawyer, thereby ensuring that Metro’s lawyers, duty-bound to protect the agency, will vet findings that may cause embarrassment to the agency. In fact, there should be no protection from embarrassment for a publicly funded transit system whose safe and efficient management and operations are key to the region’s vitality and security.
To be fair, Ms. Lew herself did not press hard enough to make public her office’s investigative findings, a policy Mr. Cherrington reversed soon after taking office. From now on, he said, the OIG will routinely release information on closed investigations — after Metro’s lawyers edit out privacy and other sensitive information. Summaries of its findings will also be released semiannually to Metro’s board of directors.
That’s a good start, but deeper reforms are needed. Mr. Cherrington has enumerated a list of them that would sharpen the OIG’s teeth, including expanding its 34-person staff, more than doubling its $4.7 million annual budget, and hiring its own lawyers and criminal analysis and forensic auditors, the better to ferret out fraud and abuse at the agency without undue meddling from above.
Mr. Wiedefeld, an effective reformer, balked at first, insisting that Metro hasn’t meddled. More recently he seemed to come around, acknowledging that Metro’s OIG might be better placed at the federal Transportation Department. That’s an idea worth exploring and one that might give the inspectors the independence they need to do their jobs.