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Project on Government Oversight

Watching the Watchdogs: The Good, the Bad, and What We Need from the Inspectors General

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January 14, 2014 | By: Danielle Brian, Jana Persky

Requiring members of his staff to drive him and his wife around on personal errands. Using government personnel to help him write his Ph.D. dissertation. Employing his wife in a U.S. government job within his own office, and letting her telework for seven months while she was in India. Retaliating against employees who challenged his conduct.

Charles Edwards

Charles Edwards, Acting Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security

This is precisely the type of waste, fraud, and abuse that inspectors general (IGs) are supposed to root out. But in the case at hand, the official facing the accusations, Charles Edwards, was the acting head of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security. The allegations emerged in a June 2013 letter from Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Ranking Member Ron Johnson (R-WI) in which they say they had “been alerted by numerous whistleblowers” to the conduct they described.

Edwards, the Deputy IG and interim head of the office, responded with a statement describing the charges as “made anonymously” and “completely without merit,” but Senator Johnson’s press secretary wrote in a June 2013 email to POGO that the “allegations are not anonymous” and that “[w]e have dozens of known whistleblowers.” In October, Senators McCaskill and Johnson issued another letter to Edwards expressing their concerns over the delay in an adequate response from the IG and demanding cooperation with their investigation.

In November 2013, President Obama nominated John Roth, who had been the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s criminal investigation office, to become DHS Inspector General. And on December 16, 2013, Edwards resigned from his position, just days before he was scheduled to testify before the Senate subcommittee.

While this vacancy, along with a number of other IG vacancies for major agencies, is finally in the process of being filled, there was an extensive period of time during which temporary or “Acting” IGs were in charge of those very important offices. At the time of this writing, there remain nine Inspector General vacancies across the federal government, three of which have been vacant for two or more years. Why does this matter?

Examples of Problematic Inspectors General

The Edwards case is just one of the latest in a string of IG scandals at major federal agencies—most involving Acting IGs. Inspectors General are in place to hold their agencies accountable, yet a number lack the strength, independence, and integrity to effectively do so. Allowing these offices to be run by people who remain in the acting position but are seeking a permanent appointment creates a conflict. The top watchdogs are put in a position where the thoroughness or aggressiveness of their work can weaken their chance of being appointed to the permanent slot because the heads of agencies are routinely given the opportunity to vet their IG candidates. Recent events suggest this phenomenon may be a systemic problem.

Department of Defense

Zero Dark Thirty

In June, the Project On Government Oversight broke the news that the Department of Defense’s IG office had been sitting on a finding that then-CIA Director Leon Panetta—who went on to become Secretary of Defense—disclosed top secret information at a 2011 gathering attended by a Hollywood filmmaker. The screenwriter was working on Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Peter T. King (R-NY), then-Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, asked the IG to investigate possible leaks in 2011. In June 2013, nearly two years after that request, an OIG spokesperson told POGO that the report was not finished. The week after POGO published a draft OIG report on the investigation, which included the information about Panetta, then-Acting IG Lynne Halbrooks released a revised version that left out any mention of Panetta’s alleged disclosures.

The analysts who compiled the report recently received a “Team of the Year” award from Halbrooks, who was known to have been seeking appointment to the permanent position (she didn’t get the job; a permanent IG, Jon T. Rymer, has since been presidentially appointed and confirmed by the Senate). Based on the serious omissions that shielded Panetta from blame, POGO has a hard time understanding why a relatively toothless report was so strongly commended.

Lt. Gen. David Huntoon

Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, former superintendent at West Point, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

West Point

In another recently released report, the Department of Defense IG disclosed that the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, misused his authority by making his staff work at a private charity event, feed a friend’s cats, and provide driving lessons to a friend or relative (it is unclear from the censored document exactly who received the lessons). Although the report is dated May 1, 2012, more than a year ago, it wasn’t released until June 14, 2013—just a month before Huntoon’s announced retirement date. The version made public was also heavily redacted. The Washington Post reported that the findings were disclosed only in the face of Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by The Post and other news organizations. Acting IG Halbrooks’ delay in releasing a report was sparing the Department, the Army, and Huntoon a great deal of embarrassment.

South Korea

In a case that closely mirrors the situation at West Point, the Department of Defense IG posted documents online in early August which showed that a three-star general—Joseph F. Fil Jr.—improperly accepted gifts such as cash, gold-plated Montblanc pens, and a $2,000 leather briefcase during his tour of duty in South Korea. The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon OIG’s report on the matter was kept sealed for more than a year after completion and was only disclosed—once again in a heavily redacted form—after The Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

Department of the Interior

According to a 72-page report by the Majority staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources released in February by Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), Deputy IG Mary Kendall’s own staff raised serious concerns that she was too congenial with political appointees within her agency to provide effective oversight. Kendall, who has run the office on a temporary basis since 2009, has stated her interest in the permanent IG position, potentially influencing her relationship with the agency, the Republican staff report said.

In one case, Kendall served on a board within her agency that her office was tasked with overseeing. Although Kendall was directed to serve on the committee by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, as an IG, has the independence and discretion to refuse such a directive. She did not refuse.

[Deputy IG Mary Kendall] “appears to have given inaccurate and misleading answers at Committee hearings.”

In calling her approach to oversight “accommodating and cooperative,” the Committee’s report concludes that Kendall “may be removing the deterrent effect formal IG investigations and reports have in preventing future fraud, waste, and abuse.” The Committee further claimed that Kendall made edits that “softened the critical tone” of a draft report and “minimized the shortcomings in the Department’s renewable energy programs,” and that she “appears to have given inaccurate and misleading answers at Committee hearings,” among other things.

The Committee said it had been conducting oversight of the IG for more than two years, and Chairman Hastings wrote a letter to President Obama in February asking for a permanent IG.

Kendall told Congress that her approach was in response to what she described as the “contentious relationship between DOI management and OIG” that existed from FYs 2007 through 2010. Kendall stated that her more constructive relationship has “allowed DOI to work with OIG to design processes for more effective oversight” and has made OIG “better situated to conduct reviews or investigations.”

The DOI Inspector General position remains vacant.

Department of State

In 2010, POGO raised concerns about the relationship between Ambassador Harold Geisel, the State Department’s Acting Inspector General at the time, and Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, and with State’s long-standing pattern of utilizing career management officials with Foreign Service experience as Acting IGs in general. POGO reported that Geisel had once recused himself from an investigation involving Kennedy because of a perceived conflict of interest. POGO also published an email from 2008 in which Geisel sought direction from Kennedy on the OIG’s work in Iraq. “Shall I just call off the inspection or shall I call off the audit?” Geisel wrote.

Geisel spoke about the recusal at an April 2011 hearing. “I recused myself for approximately 3 weeks in what I would describe as an abundance of caution,” he said in response to a question from Representative David Rivera (R-FL) that was citing POGO’s reporting. “I was very new to the job [Geisel became Acting IG in June 2008], and I was very keen to…have it seen that we were very independent.” Geisel said he had known Kennedy for “30-some-odd years…[b]ut I can’t say we were friends.” When asked whether the relationship would prevent him from carrying out his ongoing duties, Geisel said “we have no problem at all,” although he added that he sees Kennedy on rare occasions when they need to confer.

Despite Geisel’s assurances that his office’s work was not affected by his ties to an agency official, POGO wrote in 2010 that “[n]umerous State whistleblowers have come to POGO due to a perception within the Department that employees with knowledge of wrongdoing cannot go to the OIG because they believe it to be captured by management.”

The extraordinarily longstanding vacancy at the State Department IG (over five years) has recently been filled by Steve Linick, who had been the first Inspector General for the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Recent problems with Inspectors Generals are not limited to those who are Acting.

Department of Commerce

Todd Zinser

Todd Zinser, the Commerce Department's Inspector General

In February 2013, Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology wrote to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) citing “news accounts regarding serious allegations of wrong-doing in the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General” and asking for an investigation. Several months later, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce submitted a bipartisan request echoing the call for a GAO investigation into the Commerce watchdog’s office, headed by permanent IG Todd Zinser.

POGO learned that the GAO notified the Committees in July that it was opening an investigation.

The Committees had cited several controversies involving Zinser. Most notably, in November 2012, the Merit Systems Protection Board stayed personnel actions against four former agents who Zinser and other Commerce IG officials perceived to be potential whistleblowers. According to a document filed by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a federal agency responsible for protecting whistleblowers, Zinser and other senior managers gave four agents failing performance reviews and then promised not to put the reviews in their files if they signed the non-disclosure agreements forbidding them to talk about the agency with Congress, the OSC, or the media. The Office of Special Counsel argued that the negative performance reviews “did not reflect an honest assessment of each employee’s performance.” In addition, according to the OSC’s filing, one of the former agents has “testified that, but for the nondisclosure agreement, [he or she] would have reported misconduct by OIG senior management to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).”

In their February letter, Democrats on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology wrote, “IGs are supposed to be the place abused employees can go for protection, not a source of employee abuse.”

Zinser and his office denied the charges in a statement quoted by The Washington Post. “We strongly support employees’ rights to register complaints and have not interfered with those rights…there are two sides to every story and hopefully at some point in this process we will have the opportunity to provide the facts for the public record.”

Congress also is concerned with the overall effectiveness of Zinser’s office. The Committee on Energy and Commerce’s letter cited a downward trend in “fines and other financial recoveries,” and the fact that there were “zero arrests or indictments reported in the September 2012 semi-annual report.” According to the letter, the OIG’s return on every dollar invested declined from $4.27 in FY 2008 to $1.25 in FY 2011. In addition, the Ranking Members of the Science, Space and Technology Committee and three subcommittees directly accused the OIG of ignoring potential issues. “What does seem clear is that the IG’s office received credible allegations of financial misconduct involving millions of dollars and yet did nothing with them,” the House Democrats wrote. “Moreover, after finally launching a preliminary review that concluded the available evidence pointed to a violation of law, the IG turned the investigation back over to the agency—essentially allowing the agency to investigate itself.”

It Isn’t All Bad News

It is clear that there are problems with some OIGs. However, despite the disturbing shadow these instances have cast over the IG community, there are still guiding examples of IGs producing strong investigations, clear communication, and meaningful reform.

Environmental Protection Agency

In June 2010 the Inspector General office at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified payroll discrepancies (see page 19 of the report) for John Beale, a then-senior policy adviser in the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation. They turned their concerns over to EPA’s Human Resources office, which identified a payroll discrepancy. No changes resulted from these investigations, however. Whether Gina McCarthy, then-head of Beale’s department and now Administrator for the EPA, ever directly received the information from Human Resources is unclear from the IG report.

In early 2012, according to IG testimony, McCarthy was informed by a member of her staff that Beale was still receiving pay approximately six months after his retirement party. She looked into the matter and sent her concerns about Beale’s potentially criminal payroll issues to the EPA’s Office of General Counsel in November 2012, who reported the misconduct to the IG office three months later. The investigation that followed exposed the lies and deceptions that riddled Beale’s 20-year career, as well as the nearly $1 million fraud he committed against the U.S. government over the course of more than a decade.

Beale’s infractions ranged from lying about contracting malaria during his military service in Vietnam (he never served in Vietnam) in order to get subsidized parking at EPA, which cost the government approximately $18,000, to lying about a research project so he could travel to California and visit his parents on the government’s dime. But perhaps Beale’s worst infraction was his false impersonation of a CIA agent. Beale first began to perpetrate this lie in 1994, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he used it to excuse long absences from the EPA. In fact, the IG found that Beale took off time totaling two and a half years just from 2008-2013 for non-existent CIA work, costing the federal government almost $350,000. In an interview with IG investigators on June 14, 2013, Beale admitted to spending this time puttering around his house, reading books, and riding his bicycle.

And Beale’s leisure time wasn’t cheap. From 2000-2013 Beale was paid around $180,000 per year. Beale also received retention bonuses at 25 percent his base pay for 22 years, though he was only authorized to receive them for 6. These excessive bonus payments added up to approximately $500,000 inappropriately paid to Beale by the U.S. government. Furthermore, in 2003, 2004, and 2005 Beale received cash awards totaling $33,951.

In September 2013, Beale pleaded guilty to stealing almost $900,000 from the federal government. He has agreed to pay $1.3 million in restitution, and was sentenced to 32 months in jail. The EPA Inspector General, Beale, and other EPA officials appeared before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing called “Secret Agent Man? Oversight of EPA’s IG Investigation of John Beale” in October 2013.

Meanwhile the EPA IG office recently released two follow up reports to the incident. One focuses on Beale’s payroll issues and the other on his travel fraud. Both identify steps the EPA has taken to address the institutional failings that allowed this to happen.

Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program

When Congress authorized a $700 billion bailout program during the 2008 financial crisis, it also created a new watchdog, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), to monitor the Treasury Department’s use of taxpayer dollars.

The Special IG appointed and confirmed for this position, Neil Barofsky, made it clear from the outset that he wanted to have a “regular and open channel of communication” with Congress. During Barofsky’s first few weeks in office, the SIGTARP worked with Treasury to ensure the watchdog’s oversight authority extended not only to banks but also to bailed-out automakers. The SIGTARP also raised concerns right away that bailout recipients weren’t giving the public enough information on how they would spend taxpayer dollars or comply with executive compensation requirements.

Since then, the SIGTARP has continued to be a proactive and assertive watchdog. It has reported, among other things, that large insurance companies hid behind small banks in order to qualify for bailout aid, companies used bailout funds to pay large bonuses to their executives, the government provided billions in aid to AIG counterparties such as Goldman Sachs, and the Treasury Department did not adequately oversee contracts with outside firms that provided bailout legal services.

In addition, the SIGTARP—which, unlike many other IGs, was given criminal law enforcement authority—has cracked down on what it calls “morally reprehensible” bailout-related crimes. For instance, when the SIGTARP raised red flags about a suspicious bailout application by a bank, it led to the discovery of a “nearly 10-year, $2.9 billion bank fraud scheme, one of the largest and longest-running in the United States,” the watchdog reported. (As part of this scheme, a former executive stole from the bank in order to “finance his extravagant lifestyle, including buying a private jet, a sea plane, a large collection of expensive antique cars such as a 1963 Rolls Royce, vacation homes, and restaurants”; he was sentenced to 30 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $38.5 million.)

In October, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote that the SIGTARP has had a “stellar enforcement record” despite its “relatively small resources and its narrow jurisdiction,” bringing criminal charges against more than 100 individuals including many senior executives who participated in bailout fraud schemes.

The SIGTARP has also sounded the alarm when the Treasury Department ignores recommendations or makes apparent attempts to circumvent the watchdog’s authority.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Since taking over in July 2012, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko has aggressively tried to clean up Afghanistan reconstruction work, an effort that was sorely needed in a climate where one study estimated that at least one in six dollars was wasted. SIGAR has since identified wasteful spending, unnecessary dangers to troops, and potential taxpayer support of insurgents. Just a few examples of SIGAR’s work include:

Camp Leatherneck

A room at Camp Leatherneck that will likely never be used.

Camp Leatherneck

In one recent case, SIGAR notified the Pentagon that $34 million dollars was wasted building a facility that will likely never be used. Sopko toured the command facility at Camp Leatherneck in southwestern Afghanistan and found that although it is an “impressive and well-constructed building” it is “unused, unoccupied, and presumably will never be used for its intended purpose.” In the report, SIGAR broke down the dilemma and requested an immediate explanation as to why the building was built and what the future plans for it are.

Improvised Explosive Device Threat

In October 2012, SIGAR worked with the military to draw attention to the heightened threat posed by improvised explosive devices due to lax oversight of contractors. American taxpayers were paying contractors to install systems intended to prevent insurgents from accessing roadway culverts, but SIGAR found that many of the contractors were either incorrectly installing the devices or not installing them at all. Therefore, American troops were still at risk. The office continued to publicize the danger with another report in July 2013.

Contractor Support of Insurgents

SIGAR has been instrumental in making the executive agencies, Congress, and the public aware of the constant risk of U.S. taxpayer money being diverted to enemy forces in Afghanistan. In 2012, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Commerce Department identified dozens of companies and individuals involved in the Afghanistan reconstruction effort who have ties to terrorist groups. SIGAR ensured the names of these companies and individuals—including all known aliases and affiliates—got to the State Department and USAID, and referred these companies and individuals to the U.S. Army for exclusion from federal contracting. SIGAR also provided this information to Congress. In November 2013, SIGAR notified the Secretary of Defense that an Afghan company believed to be supplying IED components had been allowed to work on a reconstruction project near a U.S. military base.

General Services Administration

A conference for federal employees in Las Vegas became fodder for headlines and punch lines last year after the Inspector General at the General Services Administration (GSA) revealed that the event cost more than $800,000 and featured commemorative coins and t-shirts, $44-per-person breakfasts, and pre-conference scouting trips costing more than $130,000. The IG noted that as the attendees enjoyed luxury accommodations and fine dining, they joked about the expenses they were racking up—expenses that the taxpayers were paying. Inspector General Brian Miller reported these findings and then began an extensive review of all GSA spending policies. The OIG’s report led to swift reforms, including the firings and resignations of the individuals implicated. Five months after the initial report was published, Miller testified to Congress that employees were increasingly sending his office tips about alleged misconduct, the GSA had cancelled 47 conferences, and the agency was requiring employees to undergo training about appropriate government spending. These changes show the impact effective watchdogs can have.

Fundamental Problems and Solutions

 
Click here to see POGO's Inspector General Vacancy Database

Fill the Vacancies

As POGO has consistently argued, we need strong, independent, and well-qualified permanent Inspectors General. Our IG Vacancy Tracker shows that major agencies have been relying on an Acting IG for extended periods of time. When an Inspector General is not secure in his or her position, he or she may be more susceptible to political pressure. How can someone stand up to high-ranking executives within the agency if he or she is auditioning to be permanently vetted or hired by the same executives?

A number of major agencies have lacked IGs for years. After pressure from POGO and Members of Congress, President Obama and agency heads finally filled the IG role at several major agencies, bringing the number of vacancies down from ten in 2012 to seven. While we are pleased with this progress, there is more to do. Of the five remaining vacancies for presidentially appointed positions, three still have no nominations and the others are still waiting for confirmation. Furthermore, recent IG appointments have created new vacancies as IGs at certain Departments are nominated and confirmed to Inspector General positions at other agencies. For instance, Jon Rymer was nominated and confirmed as Inspector General for DoD, leaving his former position as the IG at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation vacant.

Insecure Inspectors General also have a trickledown effect on the staff within their offices. Everyone within the office knows that the person in charge is temporary, which can have a direct impact on the quality and effectiveness of that office’s work. POGO has heard from multiple frustrated IG staffers about the lack of direction within the offices of several different Acting Inspectors General. One such staffer compared the situation to a plant left unwatered for years, stating that the viability of the office had suffered in the same way the plant would. A shortage of leadership is also created because an Acting Inspector General is most often occupying two top positions. At DoD for example, Halbrooks was formerly both Acting and Deputy IG, leaving the office without sufficient management.

The President and agency heads must fill these empty positions in a timely manner in order to promote independence and accountability within the Inspector General offices across the federal government. It has been helpful that several Members of Congress have joined POGO in calling on President Obama to fill those vacancies he is responsible for filling. There have been a few legislative proposals to create a forcing mechanism for appointments. While some Acting IGs may not have the agreed-upon qualifications for these positions, we think this might provide much-needed pressure for the President to nominate and vet candidates. In any case, it is important that Congress continue to press for strong, permanent appointments, and conduct rigorous oversight of IG performance.

In addition, CIGIE—the council responsible for addressing “integrity, economy, and effectiveness issues that transcend individual Government agencies” and for increasing “the professionalism and effectiveness of [IG] personnel—is required to make recommendations for vacant IG positions. However, CIGIE could do a better job of advertising vacancies in order to solicit applications. At time of print, POGO could only find one listing for an Inspector General vacancy (this for the Smithsonian Institution) on the CIGIE web page listing job openings.

Clarify Process for Removal for Cause

The process for removing IGs is shaky at best. In 2009, a political brouhaha erupted over President Obama’s decision to remove the Corporation for National and Community Service’s IG, Gerald Walpin. The Obama Administration stated that it had lost confidence in Walpin’s work, but did not provide clear evidence of misconduct. Yet as POGO explained at the time, the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 only requires the President to give a 30-day notice to Congress of intent to remove or transfer an Inspector General. Congress should fix the law to include a “removal for cause” provision that was proposed but left out of the 2008 bill. It is important that Inspectors General have stability within their positions, but if they need to be removed, there must be clarity and consistency about the process for doing so. Without it, both the IGs and the Administration are in a more vulnerable position—IGs can be terminated without being given a reason, and the Administration might avoid removing ineffective IGs because of potential political backlash.

In a 2008 report, POGO recommended a “removal for cause” provision, with the following criteria:

Make clear that an Inspector General may only be removed prior to the end of his or her term for cause. Cause would be defined as any of the following grounds: permanent incapacity; inefficiency; neglect of duty; malfeasance; conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude; knowingly violating a law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; or abuse of authority.

In addition to ending the era of IG vacancies and ensuring those holding the position exhibit the qualities necessary for this trusted position, POGO has a number of recommendations for making the IG community more effective at doing their jobs:

Work More with Congress

Effective IGs cultivate strong relationships with outside entities such as the media and the Hill. While some have criticized Inspectors General for aggressively seeking attention, POGO believes this is better than the alternative. The reality is that although Inspectors General have the ability to identify and illuminate problems, they usually cannot solve them without outside help. Therefore, IGs who consistently communicate with Congress have a far better chance of having their reforms enacted.

In fact, Congress mandated that it be informed about major Inspector General actions. The seven-day letter provision in Section 5(d) of the Inspector General Act requires IGs to alert their agency heads to “particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies,” and then the agency head must pass that information on to Congress within seven calendar days. But these letters aren’t often sent—only one was delivered to Congress between Fiscal Years 2008 and 2010.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), has told Inspectors General that he hopes to see these letters and other reporting tools used more often. POGO encourages IG offices to go beyond congressional reporting requirements and follow the approach promised by the Department of Transportation IG in this letter to Chairman Issa: “regular and proactive briefings with congressional staff on new and developing issues, involvement and testimony at Congressional hearings, technical legislative drafting assistance on matters relating to OIG work and recommendations, and informal communications by phone and email with staff of relevant Congressional committees.”

Protect Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers are essential to IG efforts to investigate and expose wrongdoing. This year, the IGs have several new responsibilities when it comes to protecting whistleblowers—part of the reforms POGO worked hard to pass for federal workers and contractors. Most IGs are now required to have a Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman to educate federal workers about their rights and responsibilities regarding whistleblowing. Thanks to Senator McCaskill, there is also a four-year pilot program that makes most IGs responsible for investigating claims of retaliation by contractor and grantee whistleblowers. Retaliation is of course an effective barrier against whistleblowing, and it makes the work of IGs more difficult. Most employees will not come forward unless they feel their report will result in positive changes and that their jobs will be protected if they face consequences. The enhanced ability of IGs to reduce retaliation of federal employees, contractors, and grantees could make them magnets for more and better evidence of wrongdoing—but first they have to show credible procedures and positive outcomes.

POGO has spoken twice to CIGIE regarding best practices for protecting whistleblowers. We recommended that they seek certification of agency whistleblower law compliance from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). The OSC has tools and resources, and has offered to work with the IGs, to strengthen their whistleblower protection practices. We also advised the Whistleblower Protection Ombudsmen to work together to share ideas and resources for economies of scale, and were pleased to learn that they are indeed meeting informally. The IGs should continue to work with one another, the OSC, POGO, and other experts to ensure they have well-trained staff and are properly implementing their new responsibilities.

Require that IG Recommendations Be Addressed by Agencies

One of the major problems with today’s inspector general system is that IG recommendations are so often overlooked that making these recommendations can seem futile, a troubling fact that does nothing to legitimize the tough role of the Inspectors General. A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report released earlier this year revealed that nearly 17,000 IG recommendations are not being fully implemented. The Committee also found that “Agencies without permanent IGs have a disproportionately high number of open and unimplemented recommendations.” The report pointed out that, if the agencies implemented all IG recommendations, the government could save up to $67 billion. POGO supports the Government Contractor Accountability Act of 2013 (S. 664) sponsored by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and cosponsored by Senator John Boozman (R-AR), which would increase agency reporting on actions taken in response to IG audits. This proposal could be strengthened further by requiring all agency responses to IGs be made public. Such a system has worked well with the Government Accountability Office, which allows agencies to submit concurring, partially concurring, or non-concurring statements that are published as an appendix with each report.

Make IG Reports More Publicly Accessible

IGs are required by law to post their audits and reports on their websites “not later than 3 days after any report or audit (or portion of any report or audit) is made publicly available.” However, many IGs avoid complying by simply not making the reports publicly available in the first place. The public is often unaware of OIG investigations, and even if journalists or other members of the public know an investigation has taken place, they often must file a FOIA request to obtain the findings. Furthermore, some IGs do not post reports online even after the reports are made publicly available through FOIA. This is especially true in the case of investigative reports (as opposed to audit, evaluation, or inspection reports). In addition, POGO is concerned with a legislative proposal by the CIGIE to explicitly exempt investigative reports from posting requirements. POGO is also concerned with an overly broad exemption to FOIA that CIGIE is seeking which could easily be overused or abused by agencies.

If OIG reports are made more accessible and transparent, it could greatly increase the influence of their work. IGs should make all reports publicly available, and post them online within the three-day requirement, unless there are legitimate, legal reasons for withholding information—because it is classified, or must be withheld under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or the Privacy Act. Even then, OIGs should post redacted copies. In addition, POGO has made suggestions for narrowing the FOIA exemption proposed by CIGIE to more precisely protect vulnerable information that could be expected to cause harm to information security systems if released.

Make IG Reporting Requirements More Meaningful

Congress should consider revamping the reporting requirements of the Inspector General Act of 1978 so that Semiannual Reports (SARs) are more meaningful and reflective of the information that Congress and the agencies actually need and use. As we pointed out in our 2009 report on IGs, even if the law doesn’t change, IGs should focus their SARs on the most significant audits, investigations, and inspections or evaluations, while briefly summarizing the others. Statistical tables should be placed at the end of the report in appendix documents, and the narrative should be readable and comprehensible to the average reader. IGs should report whether their recommendations were implemented and if they achieved the predicted results. IGs should also report how much of “questioned costs” and “funds to be put to better use” are actually recovered or put to better use.

Ensure Sufficient Funding for IGs

Sometimes, resource constraints are an issue. The more effective IGs perhaps could do more with additional resources. Thus POGO has advocated for adequate funding for government watchdogs because their work—when done well—pays dividends to taxpayers. A 2002 POGO report, Pick Pocketing the Taxpayer: The Insidious Effects of Acquisition Reform, found that at the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (part of the DoD IG’s office), every $1 spent resulted in $14 in anticipated recoveries. More generally, CIGIE has estimated that potential savings reflect about a $17 return on every $1 invested in the IGs (although admittedly those are estimates and not money in the bank). Despite the potential for vast returns on little investment, sequestration has threatened to slash IGs’ budgets.

Require that IG Report Authors Sign-off on the Final Report

The removal of substantive facts, findings, and conclusions can dilute IG reports and allow waste, fraud, and abuse to continue. To reduce the chances that the changes were made to spare the agency embarrassment or to protect government officials, Congress and the public should be aware of instances when reports have been altered. Requiring that the authors check a box that they concur, partially concur, or non-concur with the final report would deter the removal of adverse facts, findings, and conclusions, and allow further inquiry into reports that have dissenting opinions.

Clarify that IGs Have Independent Authority to Access Agency Information

We have learned that agencies are increasingly asserting attorney-client or other common law privileges to prevent IGs from obtaining all facts relevant to their work. This causes delays and increases costs. The IG Act should be amended to make clear that agencies may not assert attorney-client or other common law privileges for communications by and between an agency attorney and agency employee requested in furtherance of an IG’s statutory duties. In turn, the disclosure of such information shall not constitute a waiver of any attorney-client privilege. Such information should be treated as confidential by the IG.

To read more on POGO’s past recommendations for IG improvements, see POGO’s 2009 report, Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act.

Images from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

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