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Bridget Johnson

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November 1, 2012 - 6:32 am

Despite an ongoing investigation into the Interior Department Office of Inspector General, an annual survey found a significant number of employees in the department believe that the watchdog does not work independently from the administration and even “softens” reports to its liking.

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 the Interior Department’s Acting Inspector General Mary 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.

On Sept. 19, Kendall sent a memo to all employees in her office with results of their annual workplace survey.

“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 this week to Kevin Perkins, chairman of the Integrity Committee in the process of conducting its investigation. “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.’”

Comments from employees on the survey include: “I think there is widespread distrust and low morale in the organization right now. There are at least perceptions the acting IG and COS [Chief of Staff] did not do the right thing, ie [sic], improperly quashed investigations, and have not been forthright with Congress.”

“Another commenter expressed concern with ‘how much reports get softened to avoid “slamming” the Department in the interest of maintaining a good relationship’ and advised that if the Interior Department ‘did something horribly wrong, it isn’t our [OIG’s] job to soften the blow,’” the senators noted in the letter first obtained by PJM.

A copy of the survey results reviewed by PJM also had comments such as, “What is up with asking the Department if they are okay with OIG looking at programs and areas and not looking when DOI say they would prefer we don’t. That is clearly against the independence model. You have experts SME’s within and you don’t take the word of them but do the DOI. That is crap!”

“Wake up and quit trying to to [sic] ‘get approval’ from DOI…we have job to do,” said another. “…Get back to being independent and lets [sic] get ourselves some respect and demonstrate to the tax payers why we were hired.”

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.”

“These survey results seem to support the view that, at least within the OIG itself, there is a lack of full confidence in the integrity of their work under the current leadership,” the senators wrote to Perkins. “We believe this is important context for your ongoing investigation and reinforces why we believe it is important for your investigation to be thorough and concluded in a timely manner, as these matters need to be addressed and resolved without undue delay.”

The lawmakers encouraged the Integrity Committee to have investigators interview Interior Department employees and “assess other appropriate actions or recommendations that should be made in order to rehabilitate OIG employee confidence.”

“We do not believe these steps should delay the timely completion of the investigation,” they added.

In August, Vitter wrote in an exclusive PJM op-ed that Kendall had actually attended meetings in which Interior officials reviewed working drafts of the very same report she later was tasked with investigating — a clear conflict which Kendall never revealed.

“The biggest consequence in this case is that major energy exploration and new production in the Gulf of Mexico was basically turned off for more than six months,” Vitter wrote. “Many thousands of workers directly involved in that work were laid off. Many more in oilfield service and related support businesses lost their jobs and livelihoods or were forced to split from their families and seek work overseas. Eleven massive deepwater rigs left the Gulf of Mexico for redeployment in Brazil, Africa, even Australia. Other rigs that were headed to the Gulf turned away and shallow-water rigs were idled. The economic hit to my state of Louisiana was actually bigger than that of the recent recession.”

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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