House Appropriations Committee slaps GAO, racing ahead of Issa on investigation into error-ridden report

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.
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The House Appropriations Committee is demanding the Government Accountability Office explain how its internal reforms will prevent mistakes like those in an error-ridden report on the for-profit college sector that stained the investigative agency’s reputation last year, forcing a reorganization of its undercover sting unit.

The committee cites details about the issue first reported by The Daily Caller in May to buttress its “concern about the impact flawed analyses can have on the industries GAO report on” in report language approved by the appropriations committee Wednesday.

The report language would require GAO to issue a report by Nov. 1 to explain “what processes and procedures have been established to ensure errors” like those in the for-profit report “do not repeat themselves in the future.”

Chuck Young, a spokesman for GAO, vowed the agency would cooperate and provide a “full report as requested.”

At issue is a report issued by GAO in August 2010 that claimed “15 out of 15” for-profit colleges investigated by an undercover sting unit used “deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” to convince prospective students to enroll. The report provided a major boost to the push for strict new regulations on the sector finalized June 2 by the Education Department.

But GAO issued a slew of corrections in November 2010 that significantly improved the image of the schools investigated by the agency.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has been investigating the undercover sting unit that produced the report. The unit is described by sources close to the matter as having a history of problems and a markedly different culture — it is staffed mainly by former law enforcement officials — from the rest of GAO.

But Issa has lately shown a reluctance to address the issue head on. For instance, Republicans at a hearing held in one of the Oversight Committee’s panels on Friday barely addressed the issue.

In slapping the GAO for its error-ridden report, the Appropriations Committee — which largely decides how much the agency can spend — is putting the investigative agency on warning that without reform, its funding levels could be at stake.

“The Committee’s action is a substantial and rare public rebuke of the GAO and further accelerates the urgent need for the report’s full retraction,” said Penny Lee, managing director of the Coalition for Educational Success, a trade association that represents for-profit colleges.

It also provides new momentum to fully investigate what happened and whether other reports by the same unit suffered from similar errors. Looming questions remain about what took place and how it led to the errors in the for-profit-colleges report.

As cited in the Appropriations Committee’s report language and reported by TheDC, an internal GAO evaluation about what went wrong on the report faulted pressure from far-left Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin as the reason for some of the report’s “most obvious inaccuracies.”

The evaluation said “congressional staff” demanded the inclusion of numerous details in the report and, facing the “extreme short time frames” given to complete it, GAO “stretched whatever we could find” to fill in a key detail.

“They wouldn’t have included those references unless they felt bullied,” one former GAO official told TheDC. (Political pressure tainted error-ridden GAO report)

Harkin has angrily denounced the GAO’s allegations, with his staff claiming his innocence publicly in a memo and privately in phone calls to key insiders.

Issa interviewed the team that produced the report, and investigators on his committee have information about what took place. But his odd reluctance to broach the issue has frustrated both watchdog groups and lobbyists for the for-profit sector. (Issa hearing skips scandals)

By demanding answers from GAO, the Appropriations Committee could provide a new congressional venue to answer questions about the report and the troubled undercover sting unit that produced it.

GAO’s Young said, “We will be providing the committee a full report as requested and will outline for the committee the steps we have taken to tighten up our process for special investigations to ensure that the issues that did arise do not occur again. We will also clarify that while our internal inspection found there were process, supervisory and analytical weaknesses that led to errors and missing context, the inspection also found those errors were corrected in the revised report, that the revised report was fully supportable and that there was no bias or conflict of interest at all involved in the work.”