IG says he cannot afford to open probes in Iraq

Embattled State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard is starting to defend himself against charges that he blocked investigations into department activities in Iraq and Afghanistan to spare the Bush administration bad news.

Employees in Krongard's office charge that he prevented investigators from traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan to look into contract fraud and blocked them from cooperating with the Justice Department in other sensitive investigations. The accusations are the subject of inquiries by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a group of senior IGs and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has set a Nov. 14 hearing on the matter.

In an interview Tuesday night with CongressDaily, Krongard, citing legal advice, declined to comment specifically on the charges against him. He suggested his actions were generally guided by cost concerns.

With flat budgets and an investigative staff of a maximum of 22 employees based in the Washington area, Krongard said could not afford to pay for overseas travel where the likelihood of a successful investigation was low. Echoing statements Tuesday by his attorney, Barbara Van Gelder of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Krongard said that 85 percent of the IG office's budget goes to personnel costs, with most of the remainder dedicated to a mandated inspection regime of overseas posts.

Without a budget increase and with rising travel costs, there is little left in his discretionary budget for open-ended investigations, said Krongard, a Bush appointee who was confirmed in 2005.

"When you have something really, really important you try to find a way to rob Peter to pay Paul. ... But the overall amount [discretionary money available] is very small," Krongard said. He added that each potential investigation requires close consideration of whether it is worth the cost. Such concerns applied especially to duplicative investigations or those that involve supporting other agencies' investigations, Krongard said.

His comments came in response to a Government Accountability Office report on the State Department IG's office that was a subject of a House Foreign Affairs Oversight Subcommittee hearing Wednesday afternoon. In testimony prepared for the hearing, Comptroller General David Walker, who heads GAO, questioned the independence of the State IG's office, but attributes the problem to longstanding issues with the organization of the office and rules that limit the IG's discretion.

"We continue to identify concerns regarding the independence of the State IG that are similar to concerns we reported almost three decades ago," Walker said in his prepared remarks. While State's budget swelled from $13.7 billion in fiscal 2001 to $24 billion in fiscal 2006, the IG's budget barely budged, increasing from $29 million to $31 million, Walker said.

GAO has recommended Krongard reduce use of career Foreign Service officers and State Department management staffers to fill positions in the office. Krongard in the interview and a written response, said he understood those recommendations but felt they went to too far. He accepted other GAO suggestions.

Walker said Krongard's responses "defend the status quo and indicate an inadequate concern and regard for the independence necessary to provide effective oversight of the department." Walker added that the effectiveness of the IG's office is limited by a lack of resources and a "lack of an appearance of independence," among other problems.

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