Into the Limelight

By Charles S. Clark

March 1, 2011

After years of working behind the scenes, agency inspectors general are front and center in a high-profile battle against waste, fraud and abuse.

It's been a long, strange trip for inspectors general since those days of the Carter administration when the Justice Department tried to block the legislation that created them. As a cadre of "dual hats"-part colleague, part hall monitor-the 73 inspectors general work inside agencies to root out mismanagement and misconduct, yet their position is independent. They have been thanked for exposing waste, celebrated for uncovering abuse, fired for conflicts of interest, and blasted as unconstitutional tools of Capitol Hill politicos.

Their powers are substantive. They get their own staffs, enjoy direct access to agency chiefs and agency records, and can review regulations. But there are checks and balances to this autonomy. IGs who overstep their authority or face misconduct charges are referred to the integrity committee of their own statutorily created council. They also must keep agency heads and Congress informed of their work, and presidents have the power to appoint and remove them.

Yet a job that for decades called for blending into the woodwork is today filled in many cases by newsmakers whom lawmakers publicly cultivate. "There is increased appreciation and demand for our work," says Phyllis Fong, the Agriculture Department's IG, who also chairs the inspectors general council. "Many more bills nowadays have provisions saying, 'Have the IGs take a look annually or periodically.'"

The Republican takeover of the House has brought IGs further into the limelight with a pending legislative proposal to expand their subpoena power. Embraced recently by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the new chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, the idea is to give the independent but agency-based officials the authority to demand testimony, rather than just documents and electronic evidence, from contractors and former federal employees who might possess information on waste, fraud and abuse.

The proposal makes some IGs wary, though 95 percent of them supported it in one survey. "We want access to information in audits and investigations of contractors, and we may need to actually talk to people," says Brian Miller, inspector general at the General Services Administration. He notes that some contractors turn over documents but offer no explanations of how they're organized, or who in the company does what. "Some witnesses are cooperating and some are not," he says.

The ability to compel testimony from "reluctant witnesses who do not work for the IG's agency will enhance the effectiveness of the IG in obtaining relevant information that was previously unavailable," echoes David Kotz, inspector general for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The challenge, according to Paul Light, a longtime observer of inspectors general and now a professor of public service at New York University, is deciding which management concerns to investigate. Aggressive subpoenas risk "corroding agency cooperation," he says, because IG recommendations can be contentious in Congress. If an IG goes after "big systemic issues and legislative decisions and ends up asking an agency hard questions about procurement," for example, it could lead to controversy over the role of lobbyists and congressional campaign coffers, Light adds.

"If you use a subpoena too frequently," he says, "it becomes a form of harassment. And pity the poor IG who uses subpoenas looking for waste in a small program that's not actually important to the agency's mission. Most IGs [would] keep it as a holstered weapon."

Even without new subpoena power, inspectors general have come of age. The 2008 Inspector General Reform Act strengthened their independence, formalized their ethics adjudication process and gave them their own cross-agency professional body-the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

The law stipulates that an IG can be removed only by the president, though Congress must be notified and given reasons. It forbids agencies from shutting down uncomfortable probes, though the Treasury Department and the CIA have authority to block an IG inspection in specific situations. The law also requires agencies to post a link to the IG website on their home pages (and agencies aren't always thrilled to tell online visitors about IG investigations). IGs, in turn, must post their reports on the Web in a timely and transparent manner.

Lawmakers as diverse as Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., have pushed for agencies to make better use of IG reports. And many authors of such reports have emerged as key actors in Washington dramas, including:

By Charles S. Clark

March 1, 2011