GSA chief accuses oversight panel of mishandling IG probe

The head of the General Services Administration has accused an executive branch oversight committee of dismissing serious whistleblower allegations against her agency's inspector general without a substantive investigation, challenging the group's ethics and priorities.

Meanwhile, the misconduct allegations against GSA Inspector General Brian Miller and his top deputies, which he thought were behind him, have now been referred to a third-party -- a yet-unidentified inspector general's office -- for further investigation.

In a letter obtained by Government Executive, GSA Administrator Lurita Doan issued a stinging rebuke of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a group comprised of presidentially appointed IGs and chaired by Clay Johnson III, one of the administration's top management officials.

"Leaving the perception that these serious allegations were dismissed without substantive investigation, confirms the suspicious of many that the PCIE is a hollow shell, that the PCIE exists only as a fig leaf to provide the illusion of oversight over IG misconduct, but, in fact, its real purpose is to whitewash any wrongdoing, avoid responsible action, and ensure a blind eye to IG misconduct," Doan wrote in a January 30 letter to Kenneth Kaiser, chair of the PCIE's Integrity Committee and the assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Division.

Last month, the Integrity Committee, which is charged with probing complaints against inspector generals, dismissed allegations filed by four attorneys in GSA's IG office after less than six weeks of investigation. Three of the four lawyers no longer work in the office.

Doan said that the PCIE's decision "could have a chilling effect on all whistleblowers" who may be reluctant to come forward with similar allegations. She added that the ruling could also hurt the government's ability to hire contracting officials who "could come to the conclusion that there exists a double standard for conduct by the IG. They know that any hint of impropriety from warranted procurement professionals results in almost immediate investigation, which may last for some time. And yet, similar allegations made by entire senior legal team of the OIG, are seemingly dismissed quickly."

The letter is a rare public admonishment of the Bush administration by Doan, a controversial figure who has held onto her post despite a number of investigations during her 18-month tenure, including a 2007 finding by the Office of Special Counsel that she violated a federal law restricting political activity by executive branch employees.

Doan has blamed GSA's IG for many of her problems. She claims that Miller and his staff have a vendetta against her because of spending cuts and increased oversight she proposed for the IG's Office. Doan said that on several occasions during the past 14 months she has alerted the PCIE to "systematic problems" with the IG but that the group dismissed each of the complaints. Similar allegations PCIE have been raised with the PCIE by private contractors, Doan said.

"As a result of the PCIE's indifference, it appears that the alleged mismanagement within the OIG has possibly continued unabated," Doan wrote. "But, more importantly, we need to ensure that future whistleblowers have the confidence to report possible issues to the PCIE knowing that a full, complete and independent investigation will occur."

Johnson, the deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, declined to comment on Doan's letter. An FBI spokesman declined to comment about the PCIE investigation.

The complaints filed with the PCIE date back to the fall of 2006, when a female employee in GSA's inspector general office filed a series of whistleblower complaints against Miller and Robert Samuels, his former top deputy. Shortly thereafter, Samuels assigned the whistleblower to an eight-month non-reimbursable detail with the Housing and Urban Development Department. Samuels extended that detail several times.

Last September, Kevin Buford, then-counsel to GSA's IG office, and Virginia Grebasch, his then-deputy counsel, filed a hotline complaint against Samuels and Miller, accusing them of violating federal personnel practices that forbid retaliation against subordinates involved in whistleblower complaints. Samuels, who retired from the IG office in November, later filed his own hotline complaint against Buford, claiming the attorney had misused the hotline system.

Left without a resolution from the hotline complaint, Buford, who now works at NASA, filed his first PCIE complaint in October 2007. He argued that Miller and Samuels had "recklessly violated the law" in regard to the whistleblower's detail, which Samuels denied.

Samuels accused Buford and Grebasch of launching a plan "to seek control over management decisions, evade appropriate management by the front office, deny front office personnel their rights to report counsel's abuses, and disable the Internal Evaluation unit from looking into them."

A follow-up complaint was filed to PCIE on December 10, 2007 by four attorneys, including Buford and Grebasch. The complaint outlined what they alleged was a continued pattern of abuse and harassment by IG management. The attorneys also claimed that the IG discouraged office personnel from soliciting advice from the counsel. Samuels has denied those allegations.

In January, the PCIE informed Miller that it had dismissed the attorneys' complaints and closed the investigation. "They found that there was no substantial likelihood of any violations of law, regulations, mismanagement, waste of funds, or abuse of authority," Miller said at the time.

Left unsaid was that the PCIE requested the matter be turned over to a third-party investigator to adjudicate issues left unresolved in the complaint.

The Integrity Committee, Johnson said, decided that some of the specific complaints filed by the attorneys did not fall within the purview of its oversight powers. The committee recommended that Miller refer the matter to either the counsel's office of a non-related inspector general's office or the Government Accountability Office.

Miller has since complied with that request and turned over the complaints to an outside inspector general's office, according to David Farley, spokesman for the GSA IG's office. Farley would not identify the IG's office, citing confidentiality, but said he expects Miller and his staff to be exonerated.

Doan, meanwhile, said that she has not been briefed on the IG complaints and that she learned of the developments from media reports. She said the perception that the PCIE had whitewashed its investigation leaves her with little confidence in the process.

"When clear, decisive leadership was required, the PCIE appears to have buried its head in the sand, unwilling or perhaps unable to face the challenge of overseeing the IG community," Doan wrote.

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