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A Modern Inspector General

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In case you were wondering, it was not just the rubber stamp Republican Congress that was failing to provide much-needed oversight of the Bush Administration's "unilateral executive" theoretical government.  Across the broad spectrum of governmental agencies, the inspectors general — whose offices are to be established and run as independent watchdogs in these agencies — have been under assault:

During 2006, several inspectors general felt the wrath of government bosses or their supporters in Congress after investigations cited agencies for poor performance, excessive spending or wasted money.

For instance:

–The top official of the government's property and supply agency compared its inspector general to a terrorist, hoping to chill audits of General Services Administration regional offices and private businesses.

–Directors of the government's legal aid program discussed firing their inspector general, who investigated how top officials lavishly spent tax dollars for limousine services, ritzy hotels and $14 "Death by Chocolate" desserts.

–Administration-friendly Republicans in Congress tried to do away with the special inspector general for Iraq, who repeatedly exposed examples of administration waste that cost billions of dollars. Among the contractors criticized was Halliburton Corp., once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

–The Pentagon has been making its inspector general use lawyers picked by the defense secretary instead of independently hired attorneys.

"It's hard to believe that the government is serious about policing itself when it's whacking the people who are actually minding the store," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that tracks government waste and fraud. "These people are our security officers who help guard tens of billions of dollars. It's ridiculous to prevent them from doing their jobs."  (emphasis mine)

Jane reminded us recently of the IG for Iraq's endangered status — but Stuart Bowen is not the only IG who has been feeling the heat

Legal Services Corp. Inspector General Kirt West rankled top managers of the federal legal aid program for the poor when he investigated lavish executive expenditures. The agency's board of directors discussed firing him in early 2006.

West "should know that he's got to … shape up or we will ship him out," board vice chairman Lillian BeVier said, according to one meeting transcript.

Three members of Congress intervened to save West's job.

Congress and the Bush administration also have left open one of the most critical watchdog jobs — the Pentagon inspector general's post. The job has been vacant for 16 months, even as billions of dollars are spent each month in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Bush's nominee, David Laufman, withdrew recently because he couldn't get a Senate vote….

Laufman brought to senators' attention a directive — renewed in 2004 by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office — that requires the inspector general's legal office to be staffed by lawyers who work for the secretary rather than independently hired attorneys.

Congress created the inspectors general jobs during the post-Watergate era to ensure federal agencies had independent oversight and accountability. The IGs audit how money is spent and also play a critical role in investigating allegations of wrongdoing and protecting federal whistleblowers.  (emphasis mine)

It is never an easy job to be an internal monitor of bad behavior in your own agency — but it is truly difficult these days.  Consider the fate of Bunny Greenhouse, who served as an internal procurement officer — a watchdog of sorts on contracts shenanigans within the Pentagon, who cried foul at the no-bid contracts being doled out like candy in Iraq.   Or more recent revelations about fraud and waste coming out of the DoD and the Interior.

In case you are wondering, Legal Services Corp. has had to endure any number of budget cuts the past few years — cuts to funding for legal services for the poorest of our fellow citizens who are trying to navigate the maze of benefits paperwork for their disabled children or family members, for women who are trying to get their children away from a severely abusive spouse, for the elderly who are having difficulties with their Medicare drug payments…the folks on the margins who can least afford to get help for themselves.  No wonder the IGs office was disgusted by the luxury spending by the folks at the top of the group.  I have worked with Legal Aid for years — and have friends who continue to do this work because it desperately needs to be done — and I have to tell you that this sort of disgusting, greedy behavior where public monies are spent on excess and not on the public benefit is exactly what an IG is meant to curtail.

For the past six years, Congress has failed in its duty to provide much needed oversight, shining no sunshine into the fraudulant and wasteful cronyism and doled out greedy no-bid handovers. 

And at every turn, IG offices in every governmental agency have been stonewalled and stymied in their investigations.  Who could forget the refusal to give clearances to DoJ attorneys investigating improper practices within their own Department for the President's own illegal domestic spying program?  Yeah, that one was a classic.  And, unfortunately, not a unique example with the current bunch.

There are provisions which allow for public reporting of misuse of public funds and/or publicly owned equipment and resources, but without the ability to investigate properly and thoroughly, IGs offices have been hamstrung with staff not being fully appointed or hired, with budget cuts, with the sorts of internal maneuvering that was evidenced in Rummy's intervention at the DoD to put his own attorneys at the helm of any legal action that might be brought.  So much for independence.

One of the most common means of moving an effective investigator off a case has always been to promote the person out of the job.  Looseheadprop and I have talked about this many times in terms of some of the DoJ maneuvers that we have seen in the last few years with the Public Corruption Unit.  (Everyone wave hello to Alice Fisher this morning.)  It is next to impossible to expect a good public servant to turn down an offer for a Federal judgeship to stay and prosecute a public corruption case or to stay and continue work as an IG — a federal judge is appointed for life, and has the ability to then pass judgment on so many cases through the years, and truly it is such an honor to be so appointed. 

You can't exactly ask questions about why a successful person who faithfully does his or her job well in terms of the public good gets an offer of promotion — which is exactly what the folks who are doing the promoting are counting on from the press and the public.  It can be a VERY effective way to move someone off a case that you want to slow down for personal and/or political reasons. 

There are any number of other roadblocks that can be thrown into the mix as well:  budget cuts (well, everyone is dealing with them these days given the amount of the federal budget that is going to Iraq, so how can an IG complain that his or her office has been targeted?); hiring freezes just when staff is at a low point; failure to appoint someone (see the Pentagon — 16 months and counting); and a whole host of other backstage manipulations that the public would never notice if they didn't know to look for them in the first place.

But inspectors general are the first line of defense against fraud, abuse and waste within the agency themselves.  Their job is to ensure that the mission of said agency is carried out to the best of everyone's ability in the best of all the public's interests.  As in, not just doling out the loot to the President's cronies, but for everyone's interests as a whole.  And when the IGs offices are not properly funded, staffed and manned with folks who will DO the jobs necessary, the public suffers — because things that ought to be getting a lot of review just get quietly swept under the rug.

The 110th Congress coming in January has an opportunity to strengthen the hand of these Inspectors General by having them up on the Hill for testimony at public hearings regarding their work and the work that needs to be done to provide much needed oversight of the Bush Administration.  We also need to think long and hard about strengthening the rules and regs which govern the independence of the IGs offices within the various agencies so that agency heads cannot manipulate the process to end-run or cut out entirely the vital role that these offices play for the public good. 

We are past time for a whole lot of sunshine.  Is it January yet?

(And, because it just feels so good…a nerdy moment with Frasier and Niles.)

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com

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