The late, great Earl Devaney in his own words

The former RAT Board chair, inspector general, and federal law enforcement officer exemplified the best in public service.

It was called the RAT Board, but it was headed by a man of enormous integrity. Physically imposing but gentle and self-effacing in how he spoke to people, Earl Devaney — inspector general, law enforcer, upholder of integrity and 41-year public servant — died this week. He retired from government about a decade ago.

RAT stood for Recovery, Accountability and Transparency. The RAT Board was the structure set up in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Congress appropriated nearly $800 billion for that one. President Barack Obama reportedly personally asked Devaney to chair the board. Obama was impressed with Devaney’s work as inspector general of the Interior Department. His office had exposed a culture of corruption and misbehavior in the agency then called the Minerals Management Service. Devaney’s work led to a total reorganization of MMS into three agencies.

The MMS scandal followed a string of high-profile investigations which Devaney led or oversaw. They included the infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff and disgraced Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles.

Earlier in his career, Devaney was a Secret Service agent and director of the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The RAT Board was notable for having set up what might be called the forerunner of federal digital services. Anyone with access to a web browser could explore the Recovery Act spending, down to the specific location where money was spent. I recall checking out a neighborhood near Pittsburgh  where I lived as a young child. We would play on and around a piece of stormwater infrastructure, and I’d wondered if any Recovery Act money had been expended on that particular spot. Turns out, it had.

Devaney retired from federal service at the end of  2011, after three years at the RAT Board. In his Federal Drive with Tom Temin exit interview Devaney, he rated the integrity of mankind at about a 7 on a scale of 1-10.

“I’ve never cease to be amazed at people doing dumb things or exercising poor judgment,” Devaney told me and my then-co-host Amy Morris.

Experienced and old-school as he was, Devaney was enamored of new technologies that would give him an edge in oversight or investigative work.

“The enforcers have tools today that I wish I had 41 years ago,” he said. “Some of the tools we’re using at the Recovery Board, for instance, could have saved me a lot of knocking on doors and driving from house to house.”

Devaney understood the innovative nature of the RAT Board itself, saying, “I enjoyed ushering in what I think is a new era of transparency and accountability. The Recovery Board was, after all, a giant experiment in those two areas.”

He added, “Being able to go on a website as a citizen and drill down into your own ZIP code and find out where your government spending is actually occurring is brand new. I mean, as an inspector general, sometimes I didn’t know where the money was going from the Department of Interior.”

Devaney kept up personally, too. I asked him, half in jest, whether he was a BlackBerry or iPhone person, the iPhone still  being relatively new in 2011 with low penetration among feds.

“I am an iPhone person,” he answered, not missing a beat.

Tough enforcer though he was, Devaney was also a people person. He took pride in the way the RAT Board paired experienced hands with younger people newer to federal service in mentoring relationships.

“And as we sit here today,” Devaney said, “those young people are no longer inexperienced, and in fact, are incredibly talented. And I’m very proud of them.”

Devaney was quick to share credit for the popular work of the RAT Board, adding, “This was a joint effort by not only inspectors general and agencies, but other enforcement agencies as well in the agencies.”

Devaney expressed optimism that the strategies developed by the RAT Board could help agencies in their spending and accountability. He mentioned working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which wanted to adapt the Board’s technology. He also felt, correctly in my view, that the role of inspector general itself was enhanced by the Board’s work. Devaney attributed that to the way the Board’s process enhanced prevention, and not just detection and chasing, if improper spending.

“What we’re ending up with is much better relationships, my observation at least, much better relationships with agencies and their inspectors general, which is a very good residual outcome.”

I always enjoyed talking to Devaney because he was direct and plain-spoken. He let his own work do a lot of the talking. He was also frank and funny. Once on a panel with Devaney, we were sitting on a dais behind an earnest young man talking rapidly to the audience, with a very heavy foreign accent. Devaney leaned over to me and whispered loudly, “Do you understand a thing that guy is saying?”

It might sound cliched, but Earl Devaney really did exemplify the best in public service.

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