MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Missing inspectors general.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Inspectors General Act. It established a dozen independent, bipartisan watchdogs at federal agencies. IGs investigate fraud, audit spending, and handle whistleblower complaints. They report their findings to Congress every six months. According to one analysis, for every $1 spent on their work, IGs recoup $17.
BASHAM: Today there are six times the number of permanent IG jobs across all federal agencies. Half of those are appointed by the agencies themselves. The president nominates the other half, which require Senate approval. But as of this week, more than a dozen Senate-approved IG positions sit vacant.
WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports on why that poses a threat to taxpayers and ethics.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: In February, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General issued an audit of military contractor, TransDigm. The audit found the company had price gauged the Pentagon by drastically inflating the prices of parts.
In two years, the Pentagon paid TransDigm $30 million dollars. The IG report found half of that amounted to excess spending for overpriced items.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa highlighted the report last month during a speech on the Senate floor. He noted taxpayers footed that inflated bill.
GRASSLEY: Every dollar lost to waste, fraud and abuse harms military readiness and it also lines the pockets of somebody else at taxpayers expense.
Amid congressional outrage, TransDigm agreed last week to refund the Pentagon the inflated profits.
But Senator Grassley criticized the DOD Inspector General’s office for only auditing one of thousands of contractors and only at the request of lawmakers. Grassley also criticized the IG for not holding any officials directly responsible for the unreasonable spending.
GRASSLEY: In fact, I was more than dismayed with the response from the internal watchdogs at the DoD Inspector General’s office. Their team wrote the report. And yet, the IG leadership team showed no urgency whatsoever to fix the problem. This tells me I also need to keep a tight leash on the internal watchdogs leading the DoD’s Inspector General’s office.
Government watchdogs note that while the DOD has an acting IG, it hasn’t had a Senate-approved IG in three years. And that may be part of the problem.
Irvin McCullough is a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project. He notes acting IGs are appointed by the president without Senate approval. That means an acting IG could be more interested in pleasing the White House and the agency head than in looking for problems.
MCCULLOUGH: It’s extremely hard to have that independence when you are beholden to the agency head because you’re always trying to secure your presidential appointment. There’s a lack of vetting through the Senate confirmation process and you have a lack of confidence from whistleblowers and sources, which are how you do your job.
Twelve other federal agencies are also missing permanent Inspectors General. The Department of the Interior hasn’t had a permanent IG in more than a decade. The CIA hasn’t had one in four years.
McCullough says at the CIA that’s caused serious problems. Last year, President Trump nominated the agency’s acting Inspector General, Christopher Sharpley, to fill the job permanently. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Sharpley faced accusations of retaliating against agency whistleblowers.
MCCULLOUGH: That means that he had employees within the CIA inspector general who were saying that acting IG Chris Sharpley was reprising against them for making disclosures of waste, fraud or abuse or violations of laws, rules and regulations. And during the Senate confirmation hearing this publicly came to light.
Sharpley soon resigned. McCullough notes that’s just one example of why the Senate confirmation process is so important.
MCCULLOUGH: So now the president can appoint a new person to head up the CIA show.
But some government watchdogs are concerned the president hasn’t prioritized filling IG vacancies. Of the 13 agencies that need permanent IGs only two have pending nominations in the Senate.
Rebecca Jones is a policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. She says the Trump administration isn’t in a hurry to nominate IGs because the president would rather confirm allies of his agenda than potentially critical inspectors. But Jones says IGs are important to maintain trust in the executive.
JONES: I understand why a president would be hesitant to appoint someone who’s overseeing the executive branch but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Last week, seven watchdog groups sent a letter to Congress urging it not to delay IG nominations and hearings.
JONES: We’re also trying to find ways to encourage both the president and the Senate to move quickly on qualified nominees.
Craig Holman is a lobbyist with watchdog group Public Citizen. He says as permanent IG vacancies linger, the position’s independent and trustworthy reputation could suffer. Holman says it’s going to take public pressure on the Trump administration to get those offices filled.
HOLMAN: Public pressure is the only political leverage that we have to try to fill some of these vacancies.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.