Food and Drug Administration official John Roth testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Food and Drug Administration official John Roth testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Senators Welcome -- and Warn -- Homeland Security IG Nominee

Current FDA prosecutor John Roth faces several management challenges in the wake of his controversial predecessor.

President Obama’s nominee to head the troubled inspector general slot at the Homeland Security Department drew praise at his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, but lawmakers also warned him of the tough challenges in rebuilding morale at an agency recently divided into what one senator called “warring camps.”

John Roth, who spent 20 years as a Justice Department prosecutor before taking his current job directing 300 criminal investigators at the Food and Drug Administration, spoke confidently about his “quarter-century as a prosecutor and manager” and his “analytical mind, nose for fact and judgment tempered by years of experience.” He was also counsel to the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the department’s IG office, which has been without a permanent leader for three years, “is in need of leadership and a fresh start, after a turbulent period that has raised questions about the integrity of the office’s work and has undoubtedly shaken morale within the office.”

Carper called the hearing after a year in which the acting DHS IG Charles Edwards was accused of misconduct, including favoritism in hiring (Edwards resigned in December), and just weeks after the Senate -- using a controversial change in filibuster rules -- approved Jeh Johnson as Homeland Security Secretary and Alejandro Mayorkas as deputy secretary despite an ongoing ethics probe involving Mayorkas.

Ranking member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who joined other senators in support of Roth’s nomination, said, “The vast majority at the inspector general’s office are stellar federal employees who shouldn’t be tainted by questions raised in the past several months.” He asked Roth to commit, once confirmed, to tackling the 1,239 recommendations from the IG that DHS has yet to implement, some of which are a decade old. Coburn also asked the nominee to focus on the recent revelations of overtime fraud at DHS and to defend the inspector general’s work against “members of Congress who criticize a report politically because they don’t like the outcome.”

Roth said he is “under no illusions about DHS, which 10 years after its creation is still finding its way,” and stated that the IG post is a “difficult job to get right.” But he cited his experience with auditing techniques at FDA and Justice, and his lessons in unbiased probes that require “following the facts wherever they may go regardless of whether the heavens fall.” The most important traits for an IG, he added, are “to pay attention to detail, work hard, be sure the staff works hard, and prepare reports that are timely and helpful to Congress and the administration.” He also promised to take whistleblowers seriously.

Roth remained cautiously neutral as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed anger at the Senate leadership’s recent launch of the “so-called nuclear option” in cutting off floor debate on nominees, which McCain said prevented him from requiring the new leaders at DHS to commit to specific metrics of success in sealing the U.S. southern border against illegal immigrants and terrorists.

The nominee deployed the same restraint when Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., decried the “warring camps” at the IG’s office. “You’ve got a real problem on your hands,” she said, “with a staff divided between those who were making the accusations against [predecessor] Edwards and those who were hired after and remain loyal -- it’s a difficult management challenge.” 

Roth agreed that the issue is a “significant problem” that he, if confirmed, “would face early on.” He said he would travel to DHS offices to discuss the allegations of improper hiring, adding, “It’s very important to refocus people on the very important mission the IG has.”