Watchdog calls for removal of State Department's interim IG

Group argues Harold Geisel is too close to agency management.

A government watchdog group is calling on President Obama to remove the State Department's interim inspector general, saying he has an inappropriately close relationship with agency management.

The Project on Government Oversight released a letter to the White House on Thursday in which it identified concerns about the impartiality of Ambassador Harold W. Geisel, who has served in an interim status as State's IG for two and a half years. Geisel's official title is deputy inspector general because of federal limitations on how long an official can hold the title as acting inspector general.

POGO also released an August 2008 e-mail exchange it obtained between Geisel and Patrick F. Kennedy, State's undersecretary for management. In the communication, Geisel told Kennedy he was getting pressure from Congress to improve oversight of operations in Iraq. At one point Geisel noted, "If we aren't going to be a strong IG, Congress will give us another."

Geisel later said, "I am trying to keep a lid on unreasonable expectations and behavior and to keep the numbers down in Iraq. However, the department committed to have an active State OIG as a quid pro quo for legislation, giving us back the lead in Iraq. Please tell Baghdad to stop shooting its friends."

State is transitioning to take over as the lead agency in Iraq as the Defense Department minimizes its military presence in the region.

"This e-mail is profoundly troubling because Geisel appears to be informing management that he is on their side and that his office needs to conduct just enough oversight to placate Congress and prevent a legitimately aggressive and independent IG from taking his place," Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO wrote in the letter.

In a statement to Government Executive, IG spokesman Thomas Burgess defended Geisel's e-mail to Kennedy. "As he explained to congressional staff on July 29, 2010, the 'unreasonable expectations' referred to in the Aug. 22, 2008, e-mail was the attempt by Embassy Baghdad to keep OIG's numbers in Iraq below what we believed was needed to perform our oversight work," Burgess said. "The purpose of Mr. Geisel's e-mail was to emphasize to the department that a strong OIG needed to have a strong presence in Iraq. In fact, OIG stood firm and sent a full complement to Baghdad. The e-mail is absolutely appropriate and, as Mr. Geisel told the congressional staff, he is 'proud of it.' "

Burgess said Geisel has known Kennedy "for many years, although they have never served together at any overseas post or in any department office, and have never had a social relationship."

The POGO missive raises other objections, including Kennedy's level of involvement in procurement issues.

In another e-mail obtained by POGO, State Department officials cited concerns that Kennedy was interfering in an April 2008 contract proposal.

In the e-mail, a State Department staffer wrote that he had been instructed to delay releasing a request for proposals for a contract to build a U.S. embassy facility in Djibouti, Africa, until Kennedy could decide on the status of a contractor's request to be qualified to bid. The firm, Aurora LLC, was not qualified to bid because of poor performance on other projects and was requesting reconsideration, according to the e-mail.

The staffer noted Kennedy's involvement "is a real problem. The [contracting officer] makes the call -- do we really want the [undersecretary] advocating for a contractor?"

Aurora did not win the Djibouti embassy contract.

Citing multiple sources, POGO said the IG's office is "conducting an ongoing criminal investigation involving Aurora LLC, and Kennedy, who has been accused of influencing the award of contracts in Aurora's favor."

Neither the State Department nor Aurora, based in Rockville, Md., responded to requests for comment on the alleged investigation.

Burgess said POGO's claims in the letter about the criminal investigation are "inaccurate," but he declined to elaborate, citing the office's policy against commenting on ongoing investigations.

Sources told POGO that Geisel recused himself from the alleged investigation because of a perceived conflict of interest. "A recusal is a proper measure for officials to make when there is a reasonable belief that relationships could interfere with decision-making," Brian wrote. "However, in Geisel's case, the recusal itself is a tacit admission that he has either a real or perceived conflict of interest with management. POGO does not believe Geisel can appropriately act as an independent IG if he has a real or perceived conflict of interest with a senior official in the State Department whose responsibilities are often the target of the IG's audits and investigations."

State's Office of Inspector General has been led by an acting management official with Foreign Service experience for five of the past seven years. POGO's letter suggested State's reliance on such officials to serve as acting IG creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"As the State Department's mission is growing in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for an independent and effective watchdog is even more important," said POGO investigator Jake Wiens. "How can Geisel do his job rooting out waste, fraud and abuse if he has even an appearance of a conflict of interest with the State Department's head manager?"

The IG's office disagrees. "Since taking over OIG in 2008, Mr. Geisel has worked tirelessly with Congress to increase the resources and oversight capabilities of the office," Burgess said. "Under his leadership, OIG has more than doubled the number of criminal investigators, and the number of investigations has gone from 37 in fiscal 2007 to over 100 in each of the three years that Mr. Geisel has been here." The spokesman added that POGO did not contact the IG's office for comment before releasing the letter.