Ferreting out Fraud

Article excerpt

Agency watchdogs sniff out the misuse of taxpayer dollars - and walk a tightrope in the process.

It's the inspectors general, or IGs, who search through humdrum federal audits for clues of government waste. Occasionally they hit pay dirt, uncovering an "Ah ha!" that leads to an investigation and recovery of pocketfuls of taxpayer money

These investigators were called to the colors by the Inspectors General Act of 1978, which created offices in 61 federal agencies. Their charge is to dig up mismanagement, abuse and fraud.

"We provide advice and accurate information for those people who make policy decisions," says June Gibbs Brown, IG for the Department of Health and Human Services. "Our first obligation is to the work of the agency, though Congress also is one of the organizations we are to report to."

The tightrope on which IGs often find themselves puts them in the precarious position of having to criticize government from within. Critics speculate that their independence is compromised by their very organization. "It is an institutional problem in that while they are `independent' they are still susceptible to political shenanigans," says Tom Schatz, executive director of Citizens Against Government Waste.

"The law clearly states that we are to be nonpolitical and spells out the qualifications of proven expertise in specific areas - however, there are instances in which we certainly are affected," says Brown, who thinks she may be the only IG left from the original group appointed by President Jimmy Carter. She's considered by colleagues to be the grande dame of inspectors general. Brown says revising the IG Act to create term appointments might prevent some of the political interference. But Schatz says the effectiveness of the watchdogs also is curbed by congressional and agency reluctance to comply with their recommendations.

Transportation Secretary Hazel O'Leary, accused of excessive travel, disregarded IG John Layton's memo advising her to curtail her foreign visits - and flew overseas on seven more trips. The IG estimated the trips cost nearly $3.7 million. Layton pointed out at the time that the department had not implemented controls and procedures he had recommended 15 months earlier.

On the other hand, John Lainhart, IG for the House of Representatives, has had a very different experience. "In our first audit we had 226 recommendations, and every one was agreed to by the office of the House that had to implement them," Lainhart said of last year's audit. …