Missing Executives

05.10.12

Why Is the Government Missing So Many Internal Watchdogs?

Ten government agencies are missing top investigating officials to root out waste and fraud. As the House Oversight Committee holds a hearing on the vacancies, Daniel Stone reports on the shortfall.

Washington is a city known for allegations of waste and fraud. Mere mention of the government’s impropriety can get people elected. At most federal agencies, that oversight falls to an inspector general, a position appointed by the president with full independence to investigate complaints and root out abuse.

But for more than four years, the Department of State has been without a top watchdog. The agency, which oversees millions in foreign contracts and America’s often shadowy diplomacy efforts, hasn’t had an executive in its oversight office since the Bush administration. And employees there don’t know why.

“You’ll have to ask the White House because we really have no idea,” says Doug Welty, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office at the State Department. The office has received no word from top administration officials about filling the top vacancy—to have contact about an appointee would be improper, Welty says—and has been functioning decently over the past few years, ramping up investigations and increasing its staff.

Nine other agencies lack top watchdogs as well, including the Departments of Interior and Labor, both of which have been without full-time inspectors general since early 2009. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the source of hefty overseas spending often away from the public eye, hasn’t had an inspector general for over a year. And the Pentagon, which handles billions in contracts and covert war policy, has lacked a top oversight official since December.

The White House says it is working diligently to find the best people to fill the vacancies, and that it takes time to find qualified, interested people who can pass through Congress. “The administration is firmly committed to strong inspectors general, and we are working diligently to identify the best candidates to fill these unique posts,” Eric Schultz, an administration spokesman, tells The Daily Beast.

Congress hasn’t been pleased with the administration’s foot dragging, even though two nominees—for the Department of Homeland Security and the Corporation for National and Community Service—are being considered by the Senate. The House Oversight Committee is investigating the matter, beginning with a hearing on Thursday on Capitol Hill. Rep. Darrell Issa, the panel’s chairman, says vacancies “send the wrong message” about the government’s commitment to self policing. In the other chamber, Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Marco Rubio sent the White House a letter on Wednesday urging that the jobs be filled. Last April, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen held a hearing on State’s oversight, focusing on complaints by some whistleblowers that the inspector general’s office was unprepared to take their grievances.

The work of inspectors general often makes it to the public, frequently through journalists. Last year, after a series of unflattering reports on Recovery Act spending for renewable-energy projects, a Newsweek report sought answers from the White House. Evidence that Government Services Administration officials had overspent on extravagant travel and conferences, all on the taxpayers’ dime, was initially discovered by the agency’s internal investigator.

“When you have someone in a temporary role, it can be a crippling position for an inspector-general office.”

Many inspector general offices with a missing chief say their oversight efforts run smoothly and efficiently, despite the vacancies. Several officials in these offices who declined to be identified pointed out that the number of probes they conduct has increased and that oversight has never been stronger.

The Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog nonprofit that initially looked into the matter, isn’t swayed. “When you have someone in a temporary role, it can be a crippling position for an inspector-general office,” says Jake Wiens, an investigator with POGO who will testify before lawmakers on Thursday. Only official appointees have full autonomy, he says.

Filling inspector-general vacancies has taken a long time for most administrations, primarily because the person selected is the agency’s first and last stop to identify fraud. Many inspectors general have no term limits, as well. Still, POGO researchers point out that Obama is the second slowest president in history to appoint official oversight chiefs at federal agencies. The first was Ronald Reagan.