GSA scandal highlights IG role, but vacancies persist

Tuesday - 4/3/2012, 10:21pm EDT

Jake Wiens, POGO investigator

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The turmoil at the General Services Administration began with an agency inspector general's report. Detailing "over-the-top," wasteful spending and numerous violations of procurement regulations, the report led GSA Administrator Martha Johnson to fire two top officials before she tendered her own resignation.

But aside from the abrupt personnel changes, the spending scandal highlighted the role of the agency inspector general in federal oversight.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle applauded GSA IG Brian Miller for his office's investigation into the agency's excessive spending.

"This latest inspector general report ... underlines the importance of our inspectors general in holding government accountable," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a release.

But it turns out many agencies and departments now lack an official IG, according to data maintained by the Project on Government Oversight.

The group's "Where Are All the Watchdogs" tracker lists 10 IG vacancies across the government, which result from either stalled nominations in Congress or because the President hasn't officially nominated a replacement.

Those agencies' investigative offices are now under the auspices of an acting director, essentially an interim replacement.

But Jake Wiens, an investigator at POGO, told In Depth with Francis Rose that one little word can make a big difference.

Acting IGs on a 'job interview'

"Most acting IGs want to, at some point, probably be permanent IGs," he said. "In order to be a permanent IG — at least for the large agencies — you need the administration to nominate you. So it's sort of a job interview, in some sorts. So, if you're really acting as a thorn in the side of the administration, if you're really public with a lot of your findings and incredibly aggressive, it's probably pretty unlikely that you'll end up getting nominated for that position."

The lack of a permanent IG also carries with it a problem of perception.

"When an IG is conducting an investigation, especially a politically sensitive investigation, it's important that all stakeholders — whether it be Congress, the public, the administration, in general — really trust that those findings are accurate and credible," Wiens said. "And so the fact that an IG has gone through a Senate primary really has a lot of weight."

There are now 10 vacancies listed on POGO's tracker, after two nominees were approved by the Senate just last week.

Perceptions matter

Of the 10 open spots, only the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Homeland Security Department even have nominees waiting to fill the vacancies, according to the tracker.

Wiens said there should be no excuse for so many positions to go unfilled for so long.

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a conglomeration of agency IGs, publishes lists of vacancy announcements and circulates to agencies a list of qualified candidates for open positions, he said.

"I'm sure there are plenty of candidates out there," he added.

Of the 73 federal IG positions mandated by law, 32 of them require a presidential nomination, while 41, mostly at smaller agencies, require the agency itself to name an appointment.

Of the eight current vacancies for which no nominee has been named, only two are stalled because an agency has failed to nominate a candidate.

The State Department's IG office has been vacant since January 2008, after Howard Krongrad stepped down amid allegations he blocked investigations into misconduct in Iraq.

That, coupled with the lack of a permanent IG for more than four years, has bred a distrust of the office among agency employees, Wiens said.

"What we've seen at POGO is that a lot of people at the State Department, whether it's true or not, don't really trust that the State Department Office of Inspector General really is, in fact, independent. And perceptions really do matter."

Even if those suspicions are unfounded, Wiens said, it leads to fewer whistleblowers tipping off the IG about possible misconduct because they feel like it won't make a difference.

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