Investigating the Investigators

Congress responds to complaints about inspectors general.

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Bowen prepares to testify to Congress.

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Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, has been the darling of many in Congress. His efforts to root out waste and corruption in the rebuilding of Iraq have led to 30 federal prosecutions and at least 13 arrests. So supporters were quick to cry retaliation when Bowen himself recently came under FBI investigation over complaints by former employees that he went through employee E-mails and used taxpayer funds to pay personal legal expenses.

Bowen has denied any wrongdoing. Yet whatever comes of the inquiry, it serves as another example of the controversies that have been plaguing the watchdog agencies throughout the federal government. From NASA to the CIA, the perceived shortcomings of inspectors general are now so widespread that Congress is working on an overhaul of the system and is expected to pass a significant reform bill early next year.

Congress created the inspector general system in 1978 following the Watergate scandal. Supposedly more independent than the internal agency auditors and congressional investigators who preceded them, inspectors general are either appointed by the president or by heads of agencies, and they report to both Congress and the head of the agency to which they are assigned. With power to subpoena documents, they conduct periodic audits and reviews and investigate specific allegations of waste and fraud.

IGs are credited with saving taxpayers billions of dollars over the years, raising awareness of crucial problems, and triggering reforms. The Transportation Department IGs, for example, have revealed potential safety risks posed by the airlines' outsourcing of maintenance work. And the former inspector general of the Homeland Security Department has shined a spotlight on security weaknesses of the nation's immigrant visa program. In fiscal 2006 alone, IG investigations led to 8,410 criminal prosecutions.

Tension. The system intended there to be a natural tension between agency heads and inspectors general. But since 2000, inspector general appointments have become increasingly politicized, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. More than 60 percent of the IGs appointed by President Bush had political experience, such as service in a Republican White House, while fewer than 20 percent had audit experience, according to a committee report. By contrast, more than 60 percent of the IGs appointed by President Bill Clinton had audit experience, while fewer than 25 percent had political experience.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, says the IGs must strike a balance between independence and oversight. "On the one hand, an IG must be afforded the opportunity to pursue audits and investigations without fear of reprisal," she says. "On the other hand, there needs to be enough accountability that an IG does not pursue a partisan agenda.''

Politics, though, is just one threat to the independence of inspectors general. Others are interference by agency management, absence of control over budgets, and agency efforts to remove inspectors viewed as overly aggressive.

NASA's Inspector General Robert Cobb, for instance, allegedly suppressed investigations and penalized his own investigators for pursuing theft allegations and safety violations, according to current and former NASA employees. The President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency determined that Cobb had abused his authority, but Cobb, who could not be reached for comment, rejects the findings. NASA's general counsel determined that Cobb did not violate ethics rules. Cobb remains in office.

IG budget shortfalls may also prohibit investigations altogether. State Department Inspector General Howard "Cookie" Krongard recently resigned after questions about why he refused to allow investigators to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to probe contract fraud. Denying any wrongdoing, he argued that his office was limited by budget constraints. The head of the Government Accountability Office noted that Krongard's office budget had decreased 6 percent since 2001, and its workforce by about 20 percent.