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The Bridge: Overlooked Oversight

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Who’s watching the watchdogs?

At POGO, we call ourselves the people’s watchdog because we stand guard against waste, fraud, and corruption in the federal government. But we don’t do this important job alone: Inspectors general are watchdogs employed by the government who investigate and report misconduct in federal agencies to Congress. Oversight of this sort is crucial for an accountable, efficient, and ethical government. But the system that oversees these overseers is lacking.

In this edition:

  • The indispensable role of the inspector general
  • When a watchdog goes bad...
  • Who’s tasked with putting them back in line?

If you’re subscribed to our email updates, you’re likely familiar with (and incensed to hear) the name Joseph V. Cuffari. All year, we’ve been reporting on his shocking, egregiousfailures as the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. This avalanche of news stories may have made you question what the modus operandi is when the person who’s supposed to keep everyone else in line is out of order. I certainly was — so I sat down with POGO Policy Analyst Joanna Derman, who recently co-authored a report on the matter, to get some clarity.

Report: From Sleeping Dogs to Watchdogs

But first,

what exactly does an inspector general do?

Inspectors general were first formally introduced into our federal government with the Inspector General Act of 1978. The legislation established 12 inspectors general responsible for overseeing different agencies throughout the federal government. Today, there are 74.

Inspectors general hold their respective agencies accountable, making sure things are running efficiently and effectively, officials are acting in good faith, and tax dollars are being used responsibly. Inspectors general investigate and audit the agencies they’re affiliated with, and anything they uncover must be escalated to Congress. “IGs have an obligation to us taxpayers to do their job well,” Joanna said. “When they fail at their job, it has massive consequences.”

TL;DR: Inspectors General, Explained (Video)

A case study on failure and consequences

Cuffari’s specific failures as the Department of Homeland Security inspector general — burying reports, effectively keeping information and evidence from Congress, and botching his own team’s investigations — highlight the delicate ethics dynamics of the inspectors general ecosystem. In a sense, the expectations and responsibility of an inspector general is to be the moral compass for the agency they oversee. An inspector general’s integrity, then, becomes fundamental. If they can’t act ethically, how can we expect them to hold others accountable?

Cuffari’s behavior reveals the inherent threat to the inspectors general system. “IGs are considered the last line of defense, but they’re people too,” Joanna said. “And people make mistakes. People engage in misconduct.” That begs the question: Who is watching the watchdogs?

IGception

That would be the Integrity Committee, a committee under the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE, henceforth “the council”). The council oversees all the offices of inspectors general.

“You kind of get into oversight inception, in some ways,” Joanna said. “The Integrity Committee is responsible for making sure IGs aren’t just given carte blanche to do whatever they want.”

The council’s Integrity Committee has the power to do something when cases like Cuffari’s arise. Though Integrity Committee staff cannot technically investigate misconduct themselves, they can refer investigations to the executive branch or the council, or even assign another inspector general to conduct a review for the committee. The committee can then make disciplinary recommendations, reporting their findings to both Congress and the president.

But despite multiple seemingly fireable offenses, Cuffari is still the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, even after his staff went so far as to plead for his firing. The next question to ask then: Should the Integrity Committee be doing more to hold inspectors general accountable?

The final boss

Unfortunately, the Integrity Committee doesn’t run as tight a ship as we would hope. We’ve found on various occasions that the committee has neglected to refer investigations on bad watchdogs, delayed disciplinary recommendations for so long that they’re irrelevant, and failed to hold inspectors general accountable for misconduct.

In the report, our policy team makes recommendations to Congress on how they could (and should) take on a more active role in overseeing the council’s Integrity Committee, and why that would help them in the long run. “When we think of what makes a stronger IG system, the Integrity Committee keeps coming up,” Joanna explained. “You can’t have a robust oversight system without first fixing the Integrity Committee.”

Impact on landing

We’ve been calling for reforms to the Integrity Committee for a long time. And finally, this month, the council implemented a new transparency policy that allows it to publicly confirm or deny investigative probes. We now have public confirmation that Cuffari is being investigated by the inspectors general community — and they even gave POGO a shout-out when explaining their investigative efforts.

When watchdogs don’t do their jobs, the public suffers. But when they’re effective, the payoff is a more accountable, efficient government. The stakes are high. Read our report on fixing the inspectors general system now.


Outraged about Cuffari? Add your name to our petition pushing for his removal — and better yet, send an email to President Biden urging that Cuffari be replaced.