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GAO Finds Shrinking Oversight of Capitol Complex Caretaker

With all attention focusing on the incoming Trump administration, it’s easy to overlook important accountability-related news involving the current administration. For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report raising concerns about how well the government is overseeing the stewards of the 17.4 million square feet of buildings and 553 acres of land that comprise the United States Capitol Complex.

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is responsible for the maintenance, operation, development, and preservation of Capitol Hill structures and grounds, including the Capitol Building, House and Senate office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. Contracting “plays a central role in helping AOC achieve its mission,” according to the GAO. AOC’s construction and restoration projects—which currently include four “mega projects” with an estimated combined cost of approximately $1.1 billion—are designed and built by contractors.

In 2007, Congress established an Inspector General (IG) office to oversee the AOC in response to the controversy over the delays and cost overruns during the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center. The center opened in December 2008—three years late and more than $300 million over budget.

Can the IG be credited with keeping the AOC on the straight-and-narrow since 2008? Perhaps, but the GAO warns that, given recent changes in the IG office, the AOC could easily land in hot water again.

The GAO discovered a sharp decline in oversight activity from fiscal years 2012 through 2015. The IG published 34 audits, investigations, and other evaluations in FY 2012, but only 14 in FY 2015. Moreover, the IG did not issue any audits of AOC mega projects, which included restorations of the Capitol Dome and Cannon House Office Building.

The GAO found two causes of this decline. The first is the IG’s decision in 2014 to eliminate criminal investigator positions and refer criminal misconduct allegations to the U.S. Capitol Police. The second is the IG’s practice of sometimes referring allegations of AOC wrongdoing to the AOC. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest, this arrangement has the added danger of discouraging whistleblowers from coming forward. In one instance, the IG referred to the AOC an allegation of misuse of public office at the AOC. “Upon learning that the AOC Office of General Counsel rather than the OIG would be performing the investigation,” reported the GAO, “the complainant withdrew the allegation because of fear of possible repercussions for moving forward with the case.”

The GAO’s troubling conclusions: “AOC and the Congress…were not kept fully and currently informed of possible AOC problems and deficiencies.” What’s more, the IG’s practices “raise questions” about whether it is fulfilling its duty to act as an independent and objective overseer of the AOC and the billions of taxpayer dollars entrusted to it.