Updated: 07:20 PM ET; June 4, 2015: President Barack Obama nominated Mary Kendall to be the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior. Kendall has been the deputy IG at Interior since 1999. She concurrently served as the acting general counsel in the Office of Inspector General from 2001 to 2004. Prior to coming to Interior, she served in the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some agency watchdogs are at risk of becoming lap dogs to the agencies they’re charged with investigating. That’s what three oversight experts told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday.
The committee conducted a hearing to get to the bottom of why it takes so long to fill vacant IG positions at agencies.
“Among the most pervasive threats to IG independence and effectiveness are long-standing vacancies that have languished at IG offices throughout the federal government,” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told the committee.
Currently, 11 agencies are operating without a top investigator.
The Department of the Interior has been without a permanent IG for 2,291 days.
The Veterans Affairs Department, which has faced heat recently for long wait times at the Phoenix VA Health Care System and over-medicating patients at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin, hasn’t had a permanent IG since Dec. 31, 2013.
“This isn’t just about good government,” said committee Chairman Ron Johnson, (R-Wis.). “People’s lives can be in the balance here”
Brian told the committee acting-IGs have several disadvantages over their permanent counterparts.
“One, acting IGs do not enjoy the same level of credibility because they haven’t gone through the vetting process,” she said. “Two, acting IGs are temporary by nature and have an incentive to curry favor with the agency head as a way of auditioning for the permanent appointment.”
Brian also said that acting IGs are reluctant to tackle potentially embarrassing problems that may reveal unpleasant truths that would upset agency heads.
“As a result, they become more lapdog than watchdog of the agency,” she said.
Long-standing vacancies can also have a negative impact on IG office morale. One staffer told Brian the lack of leadership in their office was like a plant that’s been left unwatered for years.
“The demise of morale in the office is significant,” she said. “When you not only have a lack of leadership, but a real sense that the leadership isn’t often, in cases of the long-standing IGs that we’ve spoken about that are in acting capacity, almost working counter to the purposes of the agency. So, they’re among the big victims of these vacancies, these people who have given decades, often, to investigations and audits. And their work is either ignored or slowed to a terrible pace or, in some cases, just held up because it’s too embarrassing for the agency.
Agencies Without Permanent Inspectors General
Days Since Nomination
Total Days Vacant
Ann C. Barr
Jay N. Lerner
Carol F. Ochoa
Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz, president of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, told the committee that his council routinely submits the names of qualified candidates to the White House, but it’s ultimately up to the President to make the nomination.
President Barack Obama has submitted three nominations recently: Ann Barr at U.S. Agency for International Development; Carol Ochoa at the General Services Administration and Jay Lerner at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. They’re all awaiting Senate approval.
When asked why the President might take so long to fill an IG vacancy, Daniel Z. Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, said the reason in some cases might be to avoid embarrassment.
“Consider the following agency issues during the current administration that might have been embarrassing to the President,” he said. “Earlier this year, as revealed, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a private email server to conduct agency business. Last month, an audit revealed that civilian and military officials used Defense Department credit cards for gambling and escort services in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The General Services Administration had its own scandal centering in Las Vegas.”
Epstein listed other controversial incidents at USAID, the Homeland Security Department, VA, Fannie Mae, FDIC and the Department of Labor.
“The President did not submit nominations to the Senate for permanent IGs in any of these agencies, GSA, USAID, FDIC, FHFA, DHS, Defense, State and Labor, until after he was elected to a second term,” he said. “The President has still not nominated a permanent IG for Veterans Affairs and the Interior Department. A permanent IG might have solved some or all of the systematic problems that led to these scandals. Investigating, publicizing and remediating waste, fraud and abuse by federal agencies empowers Congress and the public and forces the President to engage in uncomfortable decisions when an OIG uncovers misconduct amongst presidential appointees. That is, the President is ultimately accountable for removing his appointees.”
Chairman Johnson pointed out that President Obama’s average of 613 days to fill a vacant permanant IG position is much higher than the four previous administrations : Reagan (224); H.W. Bush (337); Clinton (453); and G.W. Bush (280).