Obama has failed to fill key government watchdog posts
President Barack Obama’s failure to fill numerous vacancies of chief government watchdogs in key cabinets has rankled Democrat and Republican lawmakers who say the posts are critical to investigate fraud and uncover billions in wasted taxpayer dollars.
Inspectors general (IG) are independent government operators who oversee the efficiency of federal agencies and conduct crucial and sometimes high-profile investigations every year that are reported to Congress for oversight and the Justice Department for prosecution.
Lawmakers are growing impatient with these rare, prolonged vacancies at the Pentagon, State, Interior, Homeland Security and Labor Departments – five of the 14 cabinets with inspector posts appointed by the president. Officials acting as the temporary inspector, in some cases for years, need permanency in order to carry out politically sensitive investigations, lawmakers said.
“We recognize that acting inspectors general and career staff carry on the work of their offices during a vacancy, often ably so,” said the Jan. 24 letter demanding the positions be filled, authored by Sens. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and signed by an additional seven Democrats and five Republicans.
“Nevertheless, a sustained absence of permanent leadership is not healthy for any office – particularly one entrusted with as important and challenging a mission as an Office of Inspector General,” the senators said. “Inspectors general occupy a unique role – tasked with speaking truth to power and with dual reporting obligations to their agency head and to Congress. Those unique pressures may be especially challenging for an acting inspector general, serving without the endorsement of presidential selection and Senate confirmation.”
It has been five years since the State Department had a permanent inspector – the entire time Hillary Clinton headed the cabinet and during last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi and the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Officials within Homeland Security’s IG department were recently investigated for falsifying documents as part of its probe into the smuggling of illegal immigrants and narcotics across the border. An agent in the Texas division recently pled guilty to the charge and will be sentenced in April.
In addition to keeping an eye on the 240,000 employees at the Homeland Security Department, the inspector is also responsible for keeping tabs on the agency’s budget, which totaled $60 billion in 2012. The State Department in 2010 operated on a $27 billion budget with 50,000 employees, and the largest agency, the Defense Department, had a 2010 operating budget of $530 billion for an estimated three million employees.
The Interior Department has been without a permanent IG for four years and acting inspector Mary Kendall is under investigation for conflict of interest charges by the Committee of the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency.
The conflict: Kendall investigated the editing of a report by White House staff that made it appear engineers had endorsed a moratorium on offshore drilling after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. The seven members from the National Academy of Engineers had not endorsed the ban, which ultimately went into effect, costing thousands of jobs throughout the Gulf Coast region, and created a decline in energy production.
Documents later revealed by the House Natural Resources Committee showed that Kendall actually played a role in developing the report and participated in key meetings.
According to a separate report released last week by the committee titled, “Holding Interior Watchdog Accountable,” the IG office under Kendall has failed to pursue investigations involving political appointees and top Obama administration priorities, overstepped investigative bounds by participating in actual policy roles, and provided misleading and inaccurate information to Congress.
The inspector’s general office was created in 1978 by Congress to act as a politically independent watchdog to dig up cases of fraud, waste and abuse, said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a Feb. 21 letter to Obama. Most notably, it was the IG of the General Services Administration who in 2010 exposed excessive spending for work conferences, including $822,000 for a Las Vegas retreat and a nine-day trip to Hawaii by a top bureaucrat for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“Regrettably, Ms. Kendall has not appropriately upheld this standard and it is not appropriate for her to remain in charge of the IG’s office any longer,” Hastings told the president.
Added Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on energy and mineral resources: “Ms. Kendall has bungled and mismanaged a number of critical investigations and has worked collaboratively with political appointees, the very people she is charged with overseeing. The American people deserve a hard-nosed, independent watchdog to protect the integrity of the department.”
Audrey Hudson is a senior reporter for Human Events. Follow her @AudreyHudson.