Hubert Sparks reflects on four decades of auditing agencies

Monday - 1/9/2012, 9:12am EST

Hubert Sparks tells reporter Emily Kopp about his 43 years of government service.

Part 1

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Hubert Sparks tells reporter Emily Kopp about his 43 years of government service

Part 2

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Appalachian Regional Commission Inspector General Hubert Sparks, 74, has tried to retire twice, but keeps coming back to the federal government. Now, after 43 years, Sparks said this tour-of-duty would be his last. Once a permanent IG is selected, he says he'll retire once and for all. Although, he says, even in retirement he plans to stay up-to-date with issues involving inspector general practices.

(VIDEO ABOVE: A look inside Sparks' office. If you're having trouble viewing the video, go here)

So, where did the man with 43 years of government experience get his start?

As a college student, Sparks spent summers fighting fires in Northern California with the Forest Service.

"I really wanted to end up a forest ranger, but a kid from Brooklyn with an accounting degree wasn't what they were looking for," he said.

After college, he spent two years in the military stationed at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. There, he heard about an opening at the Department of Agriculture, which had just established an Office of the Inspector General and was looking for auditors to investigate the use of farm subsidies.

"That sounded a lot more interesting that sitting at a desk doing accounting work," he said.

He spent the next 20 years at the USDA, auditing programs in more than 40 countries, including Vietnam in 1968.

"My most discouraging point was when they abolished the foreign operations division at the Department of Agriculture because I thought we were doing a really good job of keeping the Department of Agriculture out of trouble on their foreign programs," he said. "It came as a total shock."

From there, he joined the Department of Veterans Affairs' IG office. Then, in 1989, he became the IG of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which awards economic development grants to local projects within the 13 states that make up the region, from southern New York to Mississippi. He stayed there until retiring in 2002.

He ended his retirement to join the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General to audit the cleanup of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He retired again two years later, but came back as inspector general at the Appalachian Regional Commission until some legislative issues are resolved and a new IG can be selected.

THE HUBERT SPARKS FILE:

Length of federal service: 43 years and counting

Number of retirements: 2

What has been your proudest achievement? Surviving 43 years! Seriously, I've had a lot of proud moments but overall it's feeling that you've made a difference. Auditing is hindsight and the easiest thing about auditing is to identify the problem and make recommendations to solve the problem. The easiest recommendation is 'fix it,' even though we expand on that to make it sound good. The toughest problem is to get the people to agree with your conclusions and take the action that you've recommended. The most rewarding part about this job is when you see they've taken the action recommended.

What has been the impact of your federal career on your life? On the personal side, the government afforded me the opportunity to meet my wife. My boss at USDA sent me to Harrisburg, Penn. to do a two-month audit in the soil conservation service office. For some unknown reason, it took me seven months to do it and I met my wife there. She was the secretary to the head of the agency. My boss kept wondering why I was taking so long. She now has 45 years in government service and is still working. We've been married for 42 years.

What is your most vivid memory of Vietnam in 1968? It was four years before it actually ended but you could tell that this was difficult. And one of my most vivid memories is how we acquired the 'ugly American' image in foreign countries. It was not because people didn't like us. It was strictly because our economic status was so much higher than that of the local people.

What do you like most about being an inspector general? You're in charge. Maybe that's an ego thing, but you're in charge. You decide on a daily basis what you're going to do. I believe that the IG Act and Amendments are some of — if not the best — legislative accomplishments directed at protecting the public from misuse of funds.

How has the government changed during your career? In the IG's office, we haven't changed very much. I wish we would change. I wish we would address more of the major issues and exchange staff to look at critical issues like Medicare rather than doing our own little parochial things in our own agencies.