Inspecting For Trust: The Role Of Inspectors General

Inspectors general are accountable to the taxpayers. They are supposed to detect and prevent waste, fraud and abuse — and thereby, hopefully, build back just a little trust in government. The institution is now more than 20 years old.

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We've been reporting on the low level of trust that Americans have in the federal government. However, there's a group of government officials who are dedicated to building trust. They are the inspectors general.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: We hear of them usually only when there are reports alleging fraud or impropriety of some sort make news. Like, for instance, last month in a story splashed all over the media including this report on MSNBC.

(Soundbite of an MSNBC news clip)

Unidentified Woman: Well, a new government watchdog report finds that dozens of senior staffers with the Securities and Exchange Commission were spending hours surfing X-rated websites when they were supposed to be policing the nation's financial system.

NAYLOR: The government watchdog that uncovered the porn-watching bureaucrats was the SEC's inspector general. He's one of 69 inspectors general who keep tabs on government activities in the executive and legislative branch.

For the most part, their work is rarely sexy. It involves auditing government programs, investigating things like food stamp fraud and generally making sure taxpayer dollars are being spent in the manner for which they are intended.

It's an idea as old as the republic. George Washington had an inspector general, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Danielle Brian is director of the Project on Government Oversight.

Ms. DANIELLE BRIAN (Executive Director, Project on Government Oversight): That was the original concept was there were inspectors essentially to report to the general on what they found.

NAYLOR: In 1978, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which sent levels of trust in government plummeting, Congress established a system of inspectors general for civilian agencies. Some are appointed by the president, others by the heads of the agencies they watch over.

They're supposed to be independent, says Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): It's been clearly demonstrated that it can work. But we've also seen inspector generals come under pressure. You know, the idea of the inspector general is they're independent. They're within the department. That is their jurisdiction whether it's EPA or whether it's the Department of Education, or whatever. And they should be independent and they should go where the facts lead them.

NAYLOR: And there have been times when IGs have come under political pressure. In 2003, the IG of the Department of Health and Human Services, Janet Rehnquist, resigned after charges that she delayed a Florida pension fund audit at the request of then-Governor Jeb Bush. She denied the charge.

IGs are often alerted to fraud by government employees who see suspicious activities in their department. Sometimes, IGs initiate their own investigations.

Danielle Brian says one of the problems of the IG system is that their recommendations, for changes in policy and programs, do not carry the force of law and are often ignored. She points again to the IG of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Ms. BRIAN: The SEC IG has over 200 recommendations that the SEC has not yet implemented. If they're not going to implement those recommendations, we think they should at least have to say why they're not.

Ms. PHYLLIS FONG (Chairperson, Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency; Inspector General, Department of Agriculture): Our job is to make recommendations. We don't have the ability to implement our own recommendations.

NAYLOR: Phyllis Fong is the inspector general of the Department of Agriculture and chairs the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency - kind of an IG trade group.

Ms. FONG: And so when we make our recommendations, we try to look at all the facts surrounding a situation and to really come forward and document what happened.

NAYLOR: Fong says IGs are important safety valves.

The work is not without its risks. Some IG employees wear badges and carry guns. In 2006, William Sentner, an agent with the Department of Justice's inspector general, was shot and killed as he attempted to serve an arrest warrant. But that's rare; most of the work of the IGs goes on behind the scenes - looking at spreadsheets and emails.

And Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight says the system succeeds despite its flaws.

Ms. BRIAN: I don't, in any way, want to suggest it's perfect. I don't think any of the IGs would think it was either or the Congress. But I think it's one of the elements of our democracy that we should be proud of.

NAYLOR: And asked about his office's independence, one IG said they shouldn't have a dog in any fight except to figure out what the truth is.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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