Obama Urged to Replace Scandal-Ridden Interior Watchdog
Just one of many departments still lacking an overseer to root out mismanagement, fraud, and ethics violations.
February 21, 2013 - 7:27 pm
Charging that the weak oversight of an acting inspector general has let mismanagement and administration favoritism run amok in the Interior Department, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee has called on President Obama to nominate a permanent watchdog for the agency — and leave Mary Kendall’s name off the list.
Inspector General Earl Devaney left his Interior post early in Obama’s term when the president picked him to oversee his $787 billion stimulus plan. Deputy Inspector General Kendall has been acting director ever since as the scandals have piled up.
Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked the Integrity Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency in a May 25 letter to investigate Kendall, whom they say “failed to ensure an independent, impartial and complete investigation into the Administration’s offshore drilling moratorium and related activities.” That request was granted in July.
Kendall, the senators noted in their request, was reportedly involved in the so-called 30-Day Report, “which erroneously indicated that independent peer review experts endorsed the Administration’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.” Then, Kendall conducted an oversight investigation of the report.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), in a letter to Obama today, said “it’s time to end the decline in trust” and “provide the office with a clear leader empowered with the authority that flows from the permanence and independence of a Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation” while Kendall is still under investigation.
The request coincided with the release of a new 75-page committee report detailing the many allegations of Kendall’s oversight foibles, including not pursuing investigations involving political appointees or administration priorities, not adequately documenting the management of IG investigations and operations, serving in an appointed policy role in conflict with the IG’s investigative duties, preventing an investigator from seeking information from a White House official, and providing inaccurate and misleading information to Congress.
At an August committee hearing, Kendall said she was interested in the permanent IG position because she wanted “to do this for the OIG, as an organization, certainly not because I am having a really great time.”
Hastings told Obama that Kendall’s tenure “can best be described as privately accommodating to senior Department officials and your Administration.”
“Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, as amended, an Inspector General is expected to be a politically independent watchdog responsible for identifying fraud, waste and abuse, and to report management problems to the Department head and Congress so that they may ensure such problems are appropriately addressed,” Hastings continued. “Regrettably, Ms. Kendall has not appropriately upheld this standard and it is not appropriate for her to remain in charge of the IG’s office any longer.”
The chairman requested that the president “act without further delay to nominate a well-qualified, uncompromised individual” to the role.
While questions about Kendall’s role in the Gulf drilling moratorium have long lingered on the Hill, today’s report included other tidbits on the acting IG not previously publicly discussed.
For example, the IG didn’t conduct an ethics review into Steve Black, counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, on potential conflicts of interest in renewable energy work with NextEra Energy after it was revealed Black was carrying on a romantic relationship with a lobbyist for the solar and wind energy company.
Black advises Salazar on renewable energy policies and leads the Department’s Renewable Energy Policy Group, a group of federal and state officials established by secretarial order in 2009 to coordinate review and processing of renewable energy projects in California, the report noted. His paramour was special adviser to the governor of California for renewable energy and served on the Interior Department working group led by Black before joining NextEra as a lobbyist.
Still, the Interior Department told committee staff that no ethics cases involving political appointees, including Black, had been referred for investigation over the past four years.
A senior official with the IG’s office told the committee that staff were aware of Black’s relationship, but never conducted an investigation into potential violations of federal ethics laws before Black recused himself from dealings with the company — because “there was no indication that Mr. Black had engaged in wrong doing.”
“However, the IG under Mr. Devaney had investigated ethics issues and potential conflicts of interest involving Bush Administration officials,” the report notes.
Other criticisms include Kendall’s personal edits to a department study critical of renewable energy programs, which political appointees also had the opportunity to edit and review.
“Overall, the edits by Acting Inspector General Kendall and the writer/editor softened the critical tone of the draft report and minimized the shortcomings in the Department’s renewable energy programs,” the committee report found.
An annual employees survey released last fall at the Interior’s IG office found a significant number of staffers believe that the watchdog does not work independently from the administration and even “softens” reports to its liking.
Kendall’s response to employees was that their frustrations were due in part to “extended pay freezes, reduced benefits, downsizing government, drastic budget cuts, and scrutiny from the House Natural Resources Committee.”
“Over 80% of OIG employees completed the survey, and the results suggest that a significant number of employees (approximately 15%) believe OIG does not conduct its work in a manner that is ‘independent’ from the Interior Department,” Vitter, Sessions, and Cornyn wrote to Kevin Perkins, chairman of the Integrity Committee investigating Kendall. “As troubling, the survey results suggest that a significant number of employees (approximately 23%) do not believe communication within the OIG is ‘open and honest.’”
Last month, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee urged Obama to fill inspector general vacancies at Interior as well as the Pentagon, Homeland Security, Labor Department, and State Department.
“The value of the Inspectors General goes beyond dollars; these offices also help reveal and prosecute wrongdoing, and promote the integrity of government. They provide invaluable support to Congressional budgeting and oversight work,” said the letter to Obama, led by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). “Inspectors General are an essential component of government oversight.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) recently urged Secretary of State John Kerry to show some pull with Obama and get him to appoint an inspector general.
“As you begin your tenure, we would like to raise an issue essential to the proper functioning of the Department of State… qualified, independent Inspectors General play an indispensible role in maintaining the efficacy of those agencies, by minimizing waste, fraud, and abuse,” Royce and Engel wrote.
The State Department’s vacancy — more than 1,800 days — is the longest of the 73 inspector general posts across the federal government.