(MintPress) – When the General Services Administration (GSA) was taken to task for excessive spending during a conference in Las Vegas that included a total bill of $823,000, it was Brian Miller who was responsible for shedding light on the issue. Miller is the GSA’s inspector general – an investigative official assigned to a government department that examines actions within the branch.
Acting as a watchdog, Miller blew the whistle on the GSA and has sparked an investigation into the group. Some of the largest government departments in the United States have been without inspector generals for years, however – a problem some say could lead to widespread corruption.
Miller helped shed light on GSA spending $130,000 on “planning meetings,” $8,130 on commemorative yearbooks and $6,325 on custom congratulatory coins. He said the spending became a “running joke” among GSA employees.
“Many times in Region 9, witnesses told us that it became a running joke with the Region 9 regional commissioner that even at staff meetings he would say, ‘We’re going to have a meeting in another location and we’re going to have food so we have to do what?’ And his senior staff is said to have said, ‘Give out awards,’” Miller said.
According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), however, four federal government agencies have been without the watchdog figure for more than 1,000 days. The Department of Labor; US Department of the Interior; Department of State and Corporation for National and Community Service all fall into the aforementioned category. POGO says the State Department has the longest running vacancy at nearly 1,500 days – more than four years – without a permanent inspector general.
There are 10 total government agencies that are currently without a permanent inspector general and the Department of Homeland Security has been without the watchdog figure for almost 420 days, despite having a nominee in place for more than 270 days. Fourteen percent of federal inspector general jobs are vacant.
“As the government looks for savings and as public confidence in government is historically low, it is inexcusable that we have so many Inspector General vacancies,” POGO investigator Jake Wiens said.
The general’s role
In the U.S., inspector generals lead organizations that are responsible for investigating the actions of the agency in which they are assigned. They conduct audits of the departments and watch for misconduct in the realm of waste, fraud, theft and any misuse of funds. Without the watchdog role within an agency, examples of misconduct have already come up. Inspector generals are usually assigned by department and agency heads, while a select few, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Inspector General of the U.S. Agency for International Development, are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.
The Department of Interior – which POGO named as one of the agencies to not have assigned an inspector general in the last 1,000 days – was skewered last August for failing to collect billions of dollars in royalties from oil companies. During the time the royalties were to be collected, the department funded a wildlife biologist to research polar bears.
Charles Monnett was brought in by the department on a budget of $1.2 million over seven years, but was suspended for “integrity issues” in regards to the study and an alleged oversight of $50 million in research contracts. At that point, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) intervened and declared the department to be “high risk” for fraud, abuse and mismanagement.
“Interior does not have reasonable assurance that it is collecting its share of billions of dollars of revenue from oil and gas produced on federal lands, and it continues to experience problems in hiring, training, and retaining sufficient staff to provide oversight and management of oil and gas operations on federal lands and waters,” the GAO wrote.
During a time when federal government departments are having budgets slashed and the federal deficit is far over $14 trillion, some have suggested the use of part-time inspector generals, but POGO said that while it would be an effective cost-cutting measure, the position would be ineffective at producing thorough leadership.
“Acting IGs are generally less effective than permanent IGs because their temporary status impedes their ability to provide leadership and set long-term priorities,” according to POGO. “And unlike permanent IGs, acting IGs do not go through a vetting process, raising concerns about their independence and effectiveness.”
Recent history of whistleblowing punishment
Vacancies of inspector general positions come during a time when President Barack Obama’s administration has indicted twice as many whistleblowers as previous administrations since the Espionage Act of 1917. While campaigning for office, Obama said he would implement rules to further protect whistleblowers, but his actions have swayed in another direction.
“Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled,” Obama’s campaign website says. “We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.”
Since Obama took office, however, he has charged the likes of Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou and Thomas Drake for leaking classified information, from Kiriakou’s confirmation of waterboarding and torture to Jeffrey Sterling’s exposure of a secret operation by the U.S. to undermine nuclear weapons programs in other countries.
“I have been following all of these cases, and it’s not like they are instances of government employees leaking the location of secret nuclear sites,” said ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper. “These are classic whistle-blower cases that dealt with questionable behavior by government officials or its agents acting in the name of protecting America.”
The high-profile case of Manning, who is charged with leaking classified information about America’s involvement in atrocities during the war in Iraq to WikiLeaks, has created a divisive climate on the extent of which whistleblowers can go to when obtaining and releasing information. The Movement of Icelandic Parliament nominated Manning for a 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, while Obama has said the theft and disposal of information is against the law.
“I have to abide by certain classified information,” Obama said. “If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law. … We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate. … He broke the law.”
Some believe Obama has overstepped his boundary by punishing those who expose corruption and wrongdoing within the government. At a recent campaign stop, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul said he would have Manning protected under the whistleblowers act and encourage more transparency within government.
“I think this issue is a very important issue because I maintain that government becomes more secret and the people’s privacy is being destroyed. We should protect the people’s privacy and we should make the government much more open,” Paul said.