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WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13:  (AFP OUT) U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) attends the signing ceremony for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 at Harriet Tubman Elementary School December 13, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13: (AFP OUT) U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) attends the signing ceremony for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 at Harriet Tubman Elementary School December 13, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)  

Political pressure tainted error-ridden GAO report

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Jonathan Strong
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      Jonathan Strong

      Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.

A smoking gun document about an error-ridden GAO report puts the murder weapon in a top Democratic senator’s hands.

GAO issued a slew of corrections in November to an undercover investigation into for-profit colleges requested by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, who had unveiled the report at a hearing highly critical of the schools Aug. 4.

A internal GAO email obtained by The Daily Caller, a self-evaluation on what went wrong from a member of the team that wrote the report, suggests GAO was under the gun.

The email says GAO was put under “extreme short time frames” by Harkin to issue the report and “congressional staffers” demanded the inclusion of numerous details as it was being finalized.

“It certainly discredits the report, doesn’t it?” said Rep. Rob Andrews, New Jersey Democrat and long-time advocate for the for-profit schools, “The fact that they felt pressure to finish this on time is disquieting.”

Sources close to the issue have long said Harkin’s influence on the report was key, but the official GAO report on what happened apparently whitewashed the issue. That report was not released to the public.

The report was “an anomaly due to its extreme short time frames,” the email says, adding that the deadline for the report was “not flexible.”

“The team’s unwillingness to say no to the additional insertion of details at the end of a job created some of our most obvious inaccuracies,” the email says, citing pressure internally at GAO for the inclusion of these “details” as well as from “stakeholders” and “congressional staffers.”

The report was crucial because it helped the push for strict new regulations at the Department of Education on the for-profit colleges. The most controversial part of the regulations, called gainful employment, is pending at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Suggestions of political influence on the error-ridden report are important because unlike budget scores by the Congressional Budget Office, which lawmakers have learned to game, GAO is known for being scrupulous and its reports are trusted on Capitol Hill.

The email maintains the “message” of the report is “accurate” and GAO spokesman Chuck Young said “we continue to stand by the report.”

Harkin, asked if he or his staff had any role in the errors in the GAO report said, “That was a GAO product, I didn’t have anything to do with it.” When informed The Daily Caller had reviewed an internal evaluation of what went wrong, he said, “I’ll have to go back and look at the time frames and stuff like that, I can’t remember that. I can’t remember the time frames. No, I don’t recall that being an issue at all.”

Justine Sessions, Harkin’s spokeswoman, said GAO agreed to present its report for the Aug. 4 hearing and “never requested an extension.”

The internal evaluation email says one specific “detail” demand in particular drove “most of our corrections.”

The detail was a summary of how many schools made deceptive claims about graduation rates and accreditation questions in the form of “X of 15 schools,” the email says.

“We then went back and stretched whatever we could find to come up with a number for the testimony. This was done in haste and is where most of our corrections came from,” the email says.