IG’s oversight and clout shrink under Obama

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Two years after the departure of President George W. Bush, the White House has still not appointed 12 of the mandated 69 agency Inspectors General, and is leaving open slots at several scandal-plagued agencies, including the departments of justice, labor and urban development.

“I hadn’t known that,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a Democrat-leaning group. “That’s troubling because the IGs are critical in combating waste, fraud and abuse,” she said

The 12 open slots is a jump from the fall of 2009, where there were eight open slots. The number of successful cases prosecuted by the IGs’ roughly 12,000 staff have also shrunk by 14 percent to 33 percent since late 2008.

“Independent inspectors general are needed to hold the federal bureaucracy accountable,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement to TheDC. “When a President leaves these watchdog positions open, sometimes for years, you have to question that administration’s commitment to good government,” said the statement from Grassley, who is a long-time advocate for greater use of IGs. He’s also the leading Republican on the Senate’s judiciary committee.

During George W. Bush’s terms, these IG offices were high-profile positions. Democratic legislators and affiliated groups used the IGs’ reports to attack the Republican administration. Media outlets also were eager uses of the reports, which ensured a series of politically debilitating media scandals. For example, Glenn Fine, the Justice Department’s IG, was lauded by many Democratic advocates for his investigations into the department’s management during Bush’s terms. Fine, who quit in January, “was great,” said Sloan. “He was so routinely aggressive and willing to buck the leadership of the department at any time to what was right,” she said.

In January 2007, for example, Fine showed the FBI had failed to properly pursue an investigation into Republican Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who was suspected of having improper contact with young male pages. “This was a hugely controversial issue in 2006,” Sloan said.

Sloan’s group helped launch the Foley scandal in September 2006, just before the mid-term elections. The claims against Foley led the evening news, bolstered Democrats’ claims that the Republican leadership was corrupt, and contributed to the Democrats’ takeover of the House, after 14 years of Republican majorities.

The DC asked Sloan if the IGs had done similar work during this administration. “Have they done anything? Hmmm. You know I’m sure they have,” she said, and recommended the TheDC contact the left-of-center Project on Government Oversight.

“We definitely think the administration should move quickly to put people in those positions,” said Joe Newsman, spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight. However, when asked if the group’s staff believes that the IG’s are getting more or less attention than during the Bush years, he responded that “there’s no sense of whether there’s more or less [attention] under the two administrations.”

“There’s plenty of work for any IG in most of the agencies, and that’s why there’s a lack of interest [at the White House] in filling them up,” said Tom Fitton, founder of Judicial Watch, a right-of-center law firm. A second factor, he said, is that “too many of the media have too little interest in [investigating] administrations headed by liberals.”

The Council of Inspectors General On Integrity and Efficiency is a clearing-house for information on the 69 federal IG offices, and files an annual report to the White House, titled ‘A Progress Report to the President.” The reports from 2007 to 2009 show a modest in decrease in IG activity during each fiscal year, which starts October 1 of the previous year.

The number of successful prosecutions fell from 8,961 in 2007 to 6,866 in fiscal year 2008 and then to 5,964 in 2009, despite a rapid growth in government employment and spending. The number of successful civil actions fell from 1,277 in 2008 to 1,206 in 2008 to 1,102 in 2007. The number of completed investigations fell from 33,740 in 2007 to 32,143 and then down to 28,256 in 2009.

Those numbers show a 33 percent drop in prosecutions, a 15 percent drop in successful civil actions, and a 14 percent drop in completed cases over a three-year period. During the same period, the number of IG offices grew from 64 to 69, and the number of people employed in the IG offices grew from roughly 12,000 to 12,600.

Since the 2009 report was prepared, the White House has successfully appointed IGs at two agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Export Import Bank, which uses taxpayer money to ease commercial exports.

The currently empty IG slots are at several high-profile agencies. They include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Homeland Security Department, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior. “No one has been nominated [at homeland security and] … it will be a while before anyone is nominated because the president is a little busy,” said an agency employee.

The Department of State’s IG office is being run by a deputy, not an appointee. The National Association for the Humanities also lacks an IG.

The labor department’s slot is empty, but the White House did nominate a FBI agent, Paul Tiao, for the slot in May 2010.

The IGs’ seat at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is empty, even though the agency has generated many charges of corruption over the last few decades. In May 2006, for example, CREW asked the department’s IG to investigate the department’s chief, Alphonso Jackson, following media reports that he had canceled a contract for political reasons. The IG’s investigation did not yield any charges, but Jackson resigned in April 2008 following another investigation into contract-awards.

IG positions are empty at the office of the special inspectors for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the high-profile Troubled Asset Relief Program. Neil Barofsky, at the TARP program, left in February this year, and Arnold Field, at the Afghan office, left in January.

The little-known Appalachian Regional Commission has the 12th empty IG slot.

Fine, the IG at the justice department, left in January after 11 years on the job. Fine was applauded by liberal activists during the Bush years. These days, the agency’s top officials are frequently criticized by Republicans for their handling of numerous cases, including the light-handed treatment given to two videotaped Black Panther activists who were successfully charged with voter-intimidation before President Obama was inaugurated.

The administration recently withdrew their candidate for the IG slot at the Corporation for National and Community Service. The slot came open in June 2009 when the administration fired the incumbent IG, Gerald Walpin, prompting protests by Republican legislators but little interest by Democrats or media companies. Walpin had been investigating evidence that the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, had earlier misused an Americorps grant worth $847,673 awarded to his community group, St. Hope.

The IG’s are independent and effective because they don’t have a term limit and can’t be fired without risking political blowback, said Sloan. When Walpin was fired, she said, “we asked a bunch of questions and were satisfied that he had some issues.”

Walpin was to be replaced by Jonathan Andrew Hatfield, a deputy IG at the politically-gridlocked Federal Election Commission. His nomination was announced Feb. 2010, but was quietly withdrawn in a notice sent to the Senate on April 8, during the high-stakes budget showdown of the 2011 budget.

The Senate is not responsible for the empty IG slots. Although most IG slots need to be confirmed, the Senate is controlled by Democrats, who generally don’t try to obstruct the nominees sent up by President Obama.

“President Obama promised to make government more open and transparent and, thereby, accountable, so it’s especially frustrating to have so many inspector general jobs left vacant,” said Grassley’s statement.  “Every inspector general position should be at work identifying and preventing mismanagement of tax dollars and abuses of power in the executive branch of government.”