Inspectors general are the taxpayers’ policemen. Their beat is the corridors of the bureaucracy, which they patrol for waste, fraud, abuse and even crime. This often puts them at odds with a president, his administration and his congressional allies.
Not long after settling into the White House, President Obama fired Gerald Walpin, the inspector general for AmeriCorps, because he had exposed a scam involving a close presidential friend. Mr. Walpin filed a report about the misuse of $847,000 in grant money by Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif. Mr. Johnson, a former NBA star, was accused of using government cash to pay “volunteers” to keep his car sparkling clean and to run personal errands. The firing of Mr. Walpin sent a clear signal to his colleagues: Investigate a friend of the president, and you’ll be looking for a new job. Many got the message.
Other inspectors general are like the Treasury Department’s J. Russell George, whose job is in jeopardy because he uncovered facts that some prefer to keep quiet. Mr. George testified about the IRS scheme to undermine Tea Party groups, drawing the ire of two Democratic congressmen, Reps. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania. They filed a formal complaint with a special watchdog council that oversees the inspectors general. The congressmen questioned Mr. George’s “independence, ethics, competence and quality control” in the hopes that the council would impose sanctions.
On Wednesday, Patrick Sullivan, an assistant inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), revealed a coordinated scheme by political appointees inside the agency to interfere with investigations. Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Mr. Sullivan said that the appointees have operated as a “rogue law enforcement agency,” blocking oversight by the EPA’s inspector general for years.
Staff members at the EPA kept investigators away from critical documents relating to the “work” of John Beale, the EPA employee who fancied himself James Bond on a secret mission for the CIA. His supervisors fell for an implausible story enabling him to steal nearly $1 million in undeserved pay and bonuses over a decade. He even scored a handicap parking spot.
Rather than try to find other John Beales, the EPA continued the cover-up and let employees get away with whatever they pleased. One senior EPA manager sold jewelry and weight-loss products out of her office. She was not only not fired, but received a presidential rank award and a bonus check for $35,000. Another bonus went to an employee who performed no work at all.
An employee making six figures received checks for two years after he retired to a nursing home. His supervisor put him on “sick leave” to keep the money flowing. Whenever Mr. Sullivan got close to exposing an inconvenient truth, the EPA played the “national security” card to deny him access to necessary material.
Inspectors general are not generally denied access to such material, and Mr. Sullivan’s resume includes stints at the FBI and Secret Service, evidence that he’s capable of handling sensitive material. “This is truly a broken agency… ,” says Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the oversight committee. “The EPA has a long history that has now become intolerable to the American people.”
Only draining the swamp of corruption, incompetence and waste will restore public confidence in the IRS, the EPA and the rest of the federal bureaucracy. Then the inspectors general can operate with full independence, unrestrained by the fear of who they might offend.