The Washington Post has a little slice of corruption from the U.S. Agency for International Development, in which we learn how “government of, by, and for the government” means well-connected people get some very special considerations, and also learn a lesson about how many federal agencies can no longer be trusted to investigate themselves.
At issue is an effort to set up “pro-democracy programs” in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. If you’ve been following the news from Egypt, you would have to conclude that the effort to encourage democracy did not pan out very well. It also did not amuse the decidedly non-democratic Muslim Brotherhood types who seized power after Mubarak was gone. They ended up charging 43 people working for non-governmental organizations contracted by USAID with operating illegally in their country. 16 of them were Americans… and one of those was the son of Ray LaHood, who was the Obama Administration’s Secretary of Transportation at the time. A secret ransom of $4.6 million in USAID money was handed over to the Egyptian government to secure the release of the Americans.
That’s where the Post story gets really interesting, in a watch-your-blood-pressure kind of way:
That May, USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) completed a confidential draft audit of the program that questioned the wisdom of the program and the legality of using the money to post bail.
But when the inspector general’s office publicly issued its final audit report five months later, those findings and other critical conclusions had been removed, according to internal audit documents obtained by The Washington Post. What was once a 21-page report had been reduced to nine.
In recent interviews, eight current auditors and employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution complained about negative findings being stricken from audits between 2011 and 2013. In some cases, the findings were put into confidential “management letters” and financial documents, which are sent to high-ranking USAID officials but are generally kept from public view.
They didn’t even try claiming the missing pages were lost in one of the freak hard drive crashes plaguing the Obama Administration? That’s really phoning it in, guys.
The whistleblowers think the acting Inspector General, Michael G. Carroll, was too invested in protecting the agency he was supposed to be investigating, perhaps because he didn’t want to stir up controversy before he could receive permanent confirmation. He finally withdrew his nomination yesterday, with the usual grumbles about Republican intransigence. One of those intransigent Republicans is Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who said his office “looked into complaints by a half-dozen whistleblowers who say their audits were altered,” a state of affairs Coburn described as worse than any other agency.
One recent change to agency policy has those formerly confidential “management letters” posted for review on the Internet, although Carroll’s staff admits no wrongdoing and says the previous discrepancies between public reports and confidential management letters were not deliberate attempts to conceal information. That’s a bit hard to square with the highly convenient, and specific, omission of the Inspector General’s findings in the Egyptian mess. What innocent explanation could there be for chopping a 21-page report down to nine pages? Running out of paper over at the OIG’s office, are we?
In another drearily familiar feature of the Most Transparent Administration in History, a 2013 investigation supposedly conducted a confidential information nobody can discuss and concluded everything was awesome over at the Inspector General’s office. Senator Coburn isn’t buying it:
The allegations of improperly altered audit reports were independently examined last year by the National Labor Relations Board’s inspector general under the auspices of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a group within the executive branch.
Brown said the confidential examination, which concluded in May 2013, “did not substantiate the allegations” and recommended that “no disciplinary or administrative action be taken.”
NLRB Inspector General David P. Berry said through a spokeswoman: “We cannot confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.”
Coburn questioned the thoroughness of the NLRB report.
“I don’t think they’re cleared at all,” said Coburn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees all federal inspectors general. “The people who actually knew what was going on were never actually interviewed. This is the first time in my career that I have some doubts about the integrity of one of these investigations.”
The Washington Post seems a bit skeptical, too, as it compared the draft versions of 12 audits to their final prints, and “found that more than 400 negative references were removed from the audits between the draft and final versions.” They’re not minor changes, either. In one case, a finding that $32 million of the $44 million budget for a project in Pakistan went to “fringe benefits, consultants, and travel,” including almost a million dollars in “fringe benefits” paid by a contractor who never actually got around to training anyone in Pakistan. (That they were being trained in techniques to reduce waste and fraud rampant in a billion-dollar aid program to Pakistan makes this even sadder, or if you’re in the right mood, more comical. “Yeah, we didn’t get our waste and fraud reduction training, because the guys who billed Uncle Sam $954,000 in expenses never showed up.”) How the heck do you omit something like that from the final Inspector General report?
The inspector general defended the changes, saying in a letter to Coburn that the auditor’s overall assertion that the program was ineffective could not be supported by evidence of “cause, and effect.”
The inspector general said it was more appropriate to put those findings in a management letter.
“This approach enabled OIG to bring the matters to the attention of mission management without requiring the significant additional investment in time required to rewrite the finding,” the inspector general said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Coburn said. “The finding shouldn’t have been removed, and it should have been a glaring recommendation that said, ‘Hey, here’s where Americans are spending their money.’ ”
I guess we all need to get over our hang-ups about how Washington spends every last million dollars it takes from us. There’s lots more in the Post’s extensive report, including some fine examples of whistleblower intimidation. It’s a story we’ve heard before from this Administration, and we’ll probably hear a few more versions of it before we’re done. As Senator Coburn’s wonderful “Wastebook” has chronicled for years, this government is so hideously over-funded. Cut Washington to the bone, and you’ll be amazed at how much wasted money the watchdogs stop treating as loose change.