GAO's Rich Stana reflects on a career he never anticipated

Tuesday - 2/21/2012, 11:54am EST

Rich Stana, part 1

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Rich Stana, part 2

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By Emily Kopp
Federal News Radio

As a newly-minted business school graduate at Kent State University in Ohio, Rich Stana expected to end up in the boardroom. He interviewed for jobs at banks and local companies, but didn't find them appealing. Then his dean suggested applying to the General Accounting Office, where he could apply his business knowledge to auditing government programs.

"I never really thought about government service very much," he said. "But I thought, ‘Why not?'"

He remembers walking out of the job interview knowing the position was a perfect fit.

"In retrospect, I don't think I would've been as happy devoting my life to figuring out how to save $5 off the cost of building an automatic transmission," said Stana, 62. "Federal service touches so many more people who really need federal programs and federal assistance. Making them work right, to make sure people don't get too much or to make sure people get a fair shake, is really a rewarding thing."

Stana spent 35 years at GAO — now the Government Accountability Office — before retiring in December as director of the homeland security and justice division. During his career, he exposed government waste, and sometimes corruption, in various federal agencies.

His work took him to more than 30 countries, including Chad in the early 1980s.

"The Libyan-backed rebels were 80 miles out of town when I started work on a Sunday and they were about 10 miles out of town when I finished on the following Friday," he said. "It was certainly a challenge to audit under those circumstances."

He continued to audit under challenging circumstances, whether that meant observing drug smuggling along the southern U.S. border or navigating between strong personalities on Capitol Hill.

Stana eventually ended up in Washington, where he helped ferret out corruption among senior-level IRS executives in the late 1980s.

He audited the federal prison system and spent time in GAO's congressional relations office before becoming director of the agency's homeland security and justice division.

Even when pressed, he can't think of a low point in his career.

"I don't mean to sound like a Pollyanna," he said, "But I could sell GAO from door to door. I think it's a good organization with great people."

THE RICH STANA FILE:

Length of federal service: 37 years, including two years with the Army and 35 with GAO.

Last position: GAO director of homeland security and justice issues

Why are you retiring now?
I'm at the top of my game. I have an in-depth knowledge of the issues and the workings of the different operations that I've been auditing. That's when it's time to go. It's better to go out as a Jim Brown rather than a Brett Farve. You want to go out when you're on the top of your game, when people say, "We're going to miss you," rather than saying, "Good riddance."

Did you see public service as a calling?
No. I always approached my job as a fun way to apply the principles I learned in business school. I'm not a policy wonk. I always looked at government as a business operation, with programs that could be managed better. But I enjoyed the opportunity to make things work better for the benefit of the American people.

Richard Stana (Photo by Michael O'Connell/Federal News Radio)

What was your proudest achievement in 35 years at GAO?
My proudest accomplishment is saving money for the taxpayers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the first get-tough, war-on-drugs federal prison construction program was under way, they were gilding the lily a bit. They had day rooms with pool tables. It was just beautiful. Every inmate would get their own cell or bedroom. It seemed a little inappropriate for what you'd expect a convicted felon to have. We brought that to their attention. The second had to do with border control and the virtual fence in southern Arizona. We saw all the problems they were having building it. The contractor couldn't get on top of it. The Secretary of Homeland Security eventually killed the project and started again. In the long run, that will save money. We asked the right questions and they realized they weren't going in the best direction. They pushed the reset button.

What do people on the outside not know about GAO?
When we get a request from the Hill to do something, we form a team. We're careful to make sure that biases aren't brought into our analyses. If I talk to you, I might get one point of view but that doesn't make a report. You have to talk to a range of people and visit a range of locations. We are very careful in GAO to keep our reputation for honest brokerage, integrity, reliability, accuracy. That's paramount. You could stop anyone in the hall and ask what their core values are, and those words would come out one way or the other. That's because when we provide information to the Congress, they have to be able to take it to the bank. They need to be able to wave the report and say, "This is the answer, right here."

Does that code of ethics spill over into your personal life?
It does create a personal expectation that, whatever view you take, whatever opinion you arrive at, or however you treat people, it's done with a good base of information from which to make a judgment, and it's done fairly. It's giving people a fair shake—not any more or any less than what they deserve. [My wife] does sometimes say, ‘Stop auditing me,' but not often because I try to keep it in check. You can't be obsessed in your personal life.

It's not always easy to work with lawmakers, but you've won multiple awards for it. What's your secret?
I think they viewed me as an honest broker. They knew I wasn't going to see the issue the way they'd like me to see it every time. But they knew that I wasn't going to give them information that was not reliable, or that we hadn't double and triple checked. So they could use that information for insight, foresight and oversight. It gives them a better idea of what is and they can make a more informed decision.

What was the toughest thing about your job?
The most challenging thing was dealing with people who were not performing to my expectations. We didn't have that many of them, but every now and then we did. I always tried to be fair with people and counsel them to get their performance up, but every now and then it didn't work well. It was always a challenge for me and a disappointment to look them in the eye and say, ‘You're just not doing what I had hoped.' Almost everyone tries to bring their best to the job. It's a real morale drag when your boss says, ‘Your best isn't enough.'

How has GAO changed over the decades?
We are a far more diverse office than we were when I joined in 1976, both in terms of skill sets and ethnic diversity. GAO has gotten on top of the potentially bad parts of that—the frictions—as well as any organization within or outside government. But I think there's a longer way to go in terms of the work rules, especially with regard to schedules. Those are made for a 20th century workforce that works eight hours a day. In a flexiplace world, those rules don't always fit.

I can't imagine how you conducted some of your investigations on a 9-5 schedule.
You have to be out watching a program operate. You have to go out with the border patrol and see people crossing illegally with loads of drugs. You can't rely on a report that says everything is fine. If you're not the eyes and ears of Congress, then your value is diminished. But sometimes I couldn't take staff with me when I went out in the field with the border patrol. I couldn't afford to pay them overtime. It's almost counter-intuitive: you would think the lower-ranking people would work longer hours. The staff wanted to go. They were disappointed if I said I couldn't afford it.

What will you miss most about GAO?
I'll miss the people. Everyday you go to work, you're dealing with intelligent people who are committed to making government work well, who are—on balance—fair-minded people and want to do the best analysis they can do. They're fun people. I know so many others' families. I've shared the high and low points of their lives. When the absolute head of the organization, Gene Dodaro, knows thousands of people by their first name and will talk with them on the elevator on the way up, what a great organization that is.

What will you miss the least?
The commute was killing me. I live in Fairfax, Va., about 23 miles out from my work place. It would take me at least an hour to get to work. Last year, during the snowstorm — which was on my birthday — it took me eight hours to get home. After a while, that just gets old. And, with the pay freezes and all, I didn't see any reason to stay.

Do you have any big post-retirement plans?
I'm looking forward to kicking back for awhile. My wife and I are going to Sicily to see our daughter, who is in the Foreign Service. We're also going back to Germany next year to see old friends. I'm exploring the possibility of teaching federal employees things like auditing. But what I'm not looking to do, at this point, is get another 60-hour-a-week job.

Check out more from the Federal Voices series.