The peer review, to be completed next year, comes after an unusual internal investigation uncovered a disturbing pattern at the oversight agency responsible for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in the sprawling Department of Homeland Security.
John V. Kelly, now the acting inspector general, overrode auditors who flew to communities affected by hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other disasters from 2011 to 2016 to assess how well FEMA helped local residents recover, according to the internal investigation. It said auditors often discovered problems with the response, but Kelly, then in charge of the auditing teams, instead directed them to write what the staff dubbed “feel-good reports.”
Under pressure from Congress, the inspector general’s office purged the faulty reports from its website in 2017 and 2018 and acknowledged they did not comply with federal auditing standards. Then the watchdog spent 14 months examining what went wrong.
It released an internal investigation in May that found fault with Kelly, his managers and their oversight of a staff that was supposed to offer real-time oversight from the ground of FEMA’s disaster response.
Kelly apologized to his staff of 600 auditors and investigators and took responsibility for failing to “set a tone that all of our products need to be fully objective.”
Federal inspectors general are traditionally evaluated by their peers every three years. The Homeland Security inspector general asked to have its next review in 2020, a year early.
Following a report Thursday in The Washington Post, two top Democrats in Congress called on the inspector general’s office to do better.
“We rely on [the office] for fact-based products that are invaluable in conducting oversight, and these reports did not meet the standard,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.
Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the failures underscore the urgency for the Senate to confirm a permanent inspector general.
“Any effort to gloss over real challenges . . . limits the ability of federal, state and local governments to learn from their mistakes and improve performance for future disasters,” Peters said in a statement.
President Trump this spring nominated Joseph V. Cuffari, a policy adviser to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), to lead the office.
The office said it is making changes that include more rigorous training of auditors to improve their objectivity, more reliance on direct sources to document their findings and rotating assignments.
The internal review also prompted the agency to address poor employee morale. Deputy Inspector General Jennifer Costello, in her written response, said she wanted “equal measures of self-awareness and accountability” and acknowledged a need for stronger leadership.
The office ranked 303 of 415 of departments that operate as part of larger agencies in last year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, and has hovered at the bottom for years.
Charles K. Edwards, the acting inspector general under President Barack Obama, was found by a Senate oversight panel in 2014 to have altered and delayed investigations at the request of senior administration officials, compromising his role as an independent watchdog.
Edwards routinely socialized with department leaders and gave them inside information about the timing and findings of investigations, the report found. And he improperly acquiesced to requests from top political advisers to then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to change the wording and timing of three separate reports.
In an email Thursday, inspector general spokeswoman Erica Paulson said the office is addressing poor morale, appointing an ombudsman, creating an employee advisory council and encouraging more communication between managers and their staffs.
The inspector general “workforce remains focused and dedicated to our mission: rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in DHS programs and operations and issuing high-impact, high-value oversight reports,” Paulson said in a statement.
“While disheartening, the mistakes on this small percentage of our work should not diminish confidence in the great work that this office has done and continues to do on behalf of the American taxpayers.”
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency watchdog gave Homeland Security a rating of “pass with deficiencies” after reviewing a sample of audits. The black mark came primarily from one audit: The assessment of FEMA’s performance after catastrophic flooding in southern Louisiana in 2016.
The EPA review identified a variety of shortcomings with the audit, including poor supervision and issues with how the staff assessed FEMA’s performance.
“As a result, the audit report may not present a complete assessment of the issues affecting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) response to the 2016 Louisiana,” reviewers found. The internal investigation supported EPA’s conclusions.