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Faced with record deficits and expanding federal responsibilities, politicians from President Barack Obama on down routinely talk about the need for transparency and accountability in government. At the same time, though, they’ve left more than a dozen of the government’s top oversight jobs unfilled.

At least 15 of the 73 inspectors general, chief auditors, or whistleblower protection jobs across government currently are vacant or are being covered by acting officials, according to a Center for Public Integrity review. Many of the openings have languished for a year or more.

The State Department, for instance, has been without its chief watchdog since early 2008 when President George Bush’s inspector general appointee resigned after a controversy involving investigations into spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the Central Intelligence Agency, often in the limelight with its sweeping spy powers, hasn’t had a presidentially appointed inspector general since the most recent appointee retired in March 2009.

The top jobs at the Office of Special Counsel, charged with protecting federal whistleblowers, and the Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ main investigative agency, also have been vacant for more than 18 months and two years respectively.

And if some lawmakers have their way with financial reform legislation pending in the Senate, five more vacancies could soon exist.

The House-passed version of financial reform legislation included a plan to convert five independently hired inspector generals at financial oversight agencies to political appointees, requiring them to be confirmed by a Senate that has been slow to act on countless nominations, including some pending for inspectors general.

A troubling void

The number of vacancies is disturbing for those in Congress charged with providing oversight of the government.

“Inspectors general play an important role in protecting taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud and abuse. I am troubled by even a single prolonged vacancy,” said Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

A former high-profile government watchdog said the Obama administration should be applauded for its efforts at improving government transparency, but needs to fill the watchdog vacancies to make good on its commitment.

Clark Kent Ervin“The key mechanism for holding government agencies accountable for their performance is inspectors general,” said Clark Kent Ervin, who served as the Homeland Security Department’s first chief watchdog from 2003-04. “So, it is troubling that there are so many vacancies in key government agencies.”

Administration officials say the president is working to make strong picks for each inspector general vacancy, and that candidates for three openings — they declined to identify them — are in the pipeline.

“The President takes seriously government oversight and accountability, which is why the administration has implemented the toughest ethics rules in history. Candidates for a number of these posts are in the vetting stage,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.

The president got four inspectors generals confirmed in his first 15 months in office at NASA, the Education Department, the Small Business Administration, and the Pentagon.

In November, he also nominated Arthur Elkins Jr. to be the inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency. But almost six months later, Elkins still hasn’t been confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, leaving the EPA’s top watchdog job occupied on an acting basis by a career official.

Likewise, Obama’s nominees for the open IG jobs at the Corporation for National and Community Service, named in February, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, named in April, also remain unconfirmed by the Senate, their nominations still pending in committees.

Other vacancies include the inspectors general at the Labor Department and the Export-Import Bank. The administration has not announced nominees for either.

When the top inspectors general jobs go unfilled, the career staffs continue to produce their daily audit and investigative work. But the agencies are often left to the care of an “acting” leader who lacks the authority, public standing, and ability to set the agenda that a Senate-approved, presidential appointee brings to the job, officials said.

The Labor and State vacancies demonstrate some of the struggles a watchdog office goes through when a vacancy stretches on for a long period of time. At the State Department, for instance, the inspector general’s website hasn’t updated its press releases since late 2007.

Labor’s top watchdog job has been open since mid-2008 when then-Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell was named acting inspector general at the Pentagon. Heddell was formally confirmed as the Defense Department’s chief watchdog last July. The Labor Department initially named Deputy Inspector General Daniel Petrole to be the acting inspector general, but the vacancy has stretched on for so long that Patrole was forced under federal employment rules to go back to his former job, officials told the Center.

Lawmakers also have two of their own watchdog openings to fill. Former Comptroller General David Walker stepped down in March 2008, and the office has been under the command of Acting Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro for more than two years. Lawmakers formed a committee to interview prospective replacements for Congress’ most high-profile accountability job and names of possible candidates were reportedly transmitted to the White House recently. A nominee, however, hasn’t been named.

In addition, the House of Representatives is searching for a new inspector general after the longtime watchdog for Congress announced his retirement in December.

IG openings also persist at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, according to the website for the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the main organization for inspectors general. Those agencies don’t require presidential appointments and simply hire their watchdogs from the outside, according to the White House.

A proud history

Congress first created the job of inspector general in 1978 with a law that directed the president to appoint 12 watchdogs to guard against wrongdoing at Cabinet agencies. Today, the number of IGs has grown to cover 69 agencies, and the jobs have come to symbolize the government’s commitment to accountability and transparency.

For instance, longtime Interior Department inspector general Earl Devaney won accolades for his investigative work before he was picked by Obama to lead the massive job of accounting for all $787 billion spent under the 2009 economic stimulus law. The dean of the IG community, Devaney’s oversight work over the years at Interior helped uncover the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and another scandal involving oil, sex, and gifts inside the agency that leases federal lands for oil and gas drilling.

Devaney took over fulltime as chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in February 2009, leaving a deputy to run his old office back at Interior. He declined to comment on the IG vacancies, though his spokesman Ed Pound said Devaney is on leave of absence from Interior while he serves the Recovery Board.

Over the years, government watchdogs have produced some memorable investigations, uncovering federal workers who watched pornography from government computers, revealing that federal housing vouchers were still being paid to dead Americans, and disclosing the FBI’s illegal gathering of phone records. And the inspectors general are frequent witnesses before Congress, helping the legislative branch fulfill its oversight function.

Troubles of their own

In recent years, however, the watchdogs’ own conduct has come under scrutiny:

  • Then-State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard announced his resignation in December 2007 after a congressional committee questioned his independence and his oversight of spending in Iraq. To date, a successor has not been named.
  • President Obama caused a stir in June 2009 when he fired Bush-appointee Gerald Walpin as inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service shortly after the watchdog issued a report critical of one of the president’s political supporters. Republicans in Congress cried foul, though the administration argued the termination was warranted. Walpin subsequently sued the government, alleging wrongful termination.
  • Former CIA inspector general John Helgerson reportedly was subjected to an administrative review by the Agency’s director, raising concerns in Congress about whether the watchdog’s independence was being compromised. Helgerson was never accused of any wrongdoing and he retired in March 2009. No replacement has been named.
  • And former U.S. Special Counsel Scott Bloch, whose office investigates whistleblower’s allegations and protects them from reprisal, was removed in October 2008 amidst investigations into his own conduct. He pleaded guilty late last month in federal court to one count of criminal contempt for withholding information from Congress.

The lengthy vacancy at the Special Counsel’s office has frustrated whistleblower advocates, who have been pressing Obama to name a replacement for months.

“Appointing a new Special Counsel is critical,” said Stephen M. Kohn, a lawyer who serves as executive director of the nonpartisan National Whistleblower Center. “The President must appoint a strong, independent and highly aggressive advocate for whistleblowers to clean up that office and ensure that whistleblowers are protected under the law.”

More vacancies?

A little-noticed provision of the financial services bill being debated in the Senate has raised the prospect of even more vacancies in the watchdog community.

Five financial regulatory agencies — the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Federal Reserve Board — for years have hired their own inspectors general because Congress had not included them in the system that requires a presidential appointment.

But a provision in the financial markets reform legislation passed by the House last December would remove those independently hired IGs in favor of political appointees named by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

The current holders of those jobs are fighting the change, suggesting it would jeopardize the political independence they have enjoyed in aggressively pursuing wrongdoing inside their agencies.

“The language converting each of the five Inspectors General to Presidential appointment with Senate confirmation does not enhance the existing statutory independence and authority of our offices,” the five current inspectors general wrote Congress in February. “To the contrary, we are concerned that [the proposed change] would potentially politicize these appointments, such that our independence, and that of our successors, would be threatened.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and a longtime champion of whistleblowers and inspectors generals, has echoed those comments.

“Making these five inspectors general presidentially appointed goes in exactly the opposite direction of independence because these positions run relatively small offices and don’t have the professional staffs that contribute to independent work in the biggest departments,” Grassley said. “The proposed change does nothing to enhance the accountability of inspectors general to the American people, which is at the heart of their role in our system.”

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