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OMB staffer to be disciplined for threats to IG

Program examiner said his office would 'make life miserable' for OPM inspector general if he took budget complaints to Congress.

An Office of Management and Budget staffer crossed the line when he threatened to "make life miserable" for the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general if he complained to Congress about his fiscal 2011 budget, a recent investigation has found.

The internal review by OMB's general counsel concluded that the career program examiner made inappropriate remarks with the OPM IG's office in January and should be disciplined for his actions.

That conversation, "regardless of its underlying motive or rationale, could reasonably have been perceived as intending to inhibit the OPM inspector general from invoking his statutory authority under the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008," OMB Director Peter R. Orszag wrote in March 5 letters to the heads of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "Such communication is unacceptable at OMB."

Since the program examiner is a career federal employee, Orszag asked the deputy directors of OMB to work with the agency's attorneys and human resources staff to "determine appropriate personnel action consistent with civil service laws."

Congressional leaders were encouraged by OMB's actions. "Congress takes very seriously any threats to inspectors general, and I am glad the administration is taking this incident seriously as well," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a statement to Government Executive. "I am encouraged that the OMB director is taking strong actions to prevent any improper interference with the OPM IG, and I will continue to monitor this situation."

The investigation was sparked by a Jan. 4 phone call between an OPM budget officer and the OMB program examiner, whose name has not been released. The budget officer said he was questioned about whether OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland would be taking advantage of a provision in federal law allowing him to inform Congress if a proposed budget would "substantially inhibit" him from performing his duties.

McFarland did share his objections with Congress after the White House's proposed fiscal 2011 budget cut the IG's funding from $25 million to $23 million.

In a letter to Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., chairman of the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, McFarland said one aspect of the conversation with the program examiner was "most troubling."

"The OPM budget officer informed my assistant inspector general for management that there is a 'not-so-veiled threat from OMB' to expressly inform my office that [OMB] will be working with the same [congressional] committees that we do and if we go to the Congress regarding our FY 2011 budget, [OMB] 'will make life miserable for us,' " McFarland said.

In addition to asking OMB to investigate the incident, Towns and Lynch called on Phyllis Fong, chairwoman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, to look into whether IGs at other agencies have received similar threats. The council is the oversight body for the inspectors general community and is chaired by Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of management for OMB.

The OPM incident appears to be isolated. Fong surveyed all 69 federal inspectors general about their dealings with OMB during the fiscal 2011 budget process.

"Sixty of the responders indicated that there was no similar threat communicated to them and six of the responders indicated that due to the nature of their organization, they do not have contact with OMB," Fong told the House Oversight Committee in a Jan. 22 letter. Three of the IG's did not respond to Fong's survey.

Orszag told the committees there is "no basis to believe that a systemic problem exists."

Nonetheless, he said the agency will increase its training for OMB program examiners on the 2008 IG Reform Act requirements.

"OMB is committed to supporting the vital roles of federal inspectors general," Orszag said. "Through their efforts to identify and eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in federal programs, inspectors general further OMB's mission of maximizing value for American taxpayers and appropriate use of federal budgetary resources."