- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2010

Amtrak officials pushed the agency’s longtime inspector general to resign — without telling Congress — after the watchdog official exposed wrongdoing, mismanagement and criminal activity inside the taxpayer-funded rail service, a congressional probe has found.

The finding is among the key disclosures in a joint staff report by ranking Republicans of the Senate Finance and House Oversight and Government Reform committees into the sudden departure last year of Amtrak Inspector General Fred Weiderhold.

“Because of his expertise, the [Amtrak] Board viewed Weiderhold as a threat,” concluded a draft copy of the report, which was reviewed by The Washington Times.

The probe also found that Amtrak’s law department, while under scrutiny by the inspector general for paying excessive fees to outside law firms, undertook a “systematic campaign” to control the inspector general by insisting that he sign off on “unusual” protocol concerning access to documents and information.

Amtrak failed to comply with the Inspector General Act for way too long,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee. “Forcing its inspector general out of office without notice or consultation with Congress is only the latest example.”

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that “Amtrak interfered with and ultimately decided to get rid of its inspector general for the worst reason: to stop an investigation.”

Amtrak officials did not respond to questions by The Times about the findings, saying they had not been provided a copy of the report. Officials addressed Mr. Weiderhold’s departure in a statement issued last year after learning that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was investigating.

“The Amtrak Board is committed to having an [Office of the Inspector General] that operates under best practices consistent with the Inspector General Act,” the company stated in a news release last year. “The board has been concerned for some time about whether best practices are currently in use in the OIG.”

In the same statement, Amtrak management said officials were cooperating fully with the congressional committee’s investigation into “what has been characterized as conflicts between Amtrak management and the inspector general within Amtrak.”

“These issues and others prompted the Amtrak chairman’s decision, with the board’s concurrence, to seek a change of leadership with the former inspector general retired,” Amtrak management said.

Mr. Weiderhold departed in June 2009 after more than two decades as inspector general. His office had issued several findings that raised questions about practices inside Amtrak’s law department, including its role in the restructuring of lease deals that cost Amtrak nearly $100 million and the “excessive use” of outside attorneys, the report found.

The congressional inquiry also concluded that:

Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper didn’t know how much the company was spending on outside attorneys and wasn’t aware whether Amtrak had any procedures to limit the legal fees.

Amtrak interfered with the inspector general by denying the office money made available through the federal economic stimulus package.

Amtrak delayed Mr. Weiderhold’s plans to hire a chief investigator and later rescinded the position, with similar problems when he sought to hire an assistant inspector general to oversee Amtrak’s use of stimulus funding.

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