- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009
COMMENTARY:

Transparent accountability for how our national government spends our money is not optional. The Constitution imposes upon the national government an explicit duty that “a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9).

In light of this constitutional duty, it was reassuring to hear President Obama, shortly after Congress authorized almost a trillion dollars of “stimulus funding” in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, announce in a joint session of Congress that he had asked Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “to lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort.”

In the same speech, Mr. Obama said each member of his Cabinet “will be held accountable by me and the American people for every dollar they spend” and that he had appointed a “proven and aggressive inspector general,” Earl E. Devaney of the Interior Department, as chairman of a new Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

Mr. Devaney promptly published his goals on the official Web site of the Interior Department Office of Inspector General:



”First, I hope to provide the American people with the historic level of accountability and transparency envisioned in the Recovery Act. Second, I intend to develop a Board which will work tirelessly to prevent fraud, waste and abuse in a collaborative manner with all levels of federal, state and local governments.”

Likewise, after Congress authorized billions of dollars in the fall to bail out failing financial institutions, the Senate confirmed former prosecutor Neil Barofsky as special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program - also known as SIGTARP. The special inspector general’s published mission is “to advance economic stability by promoting the efficiency and effectiveness of TARP management, through transparency, through coordinated oversight, and through robust enforcement against those, whether inside or outside of government, who waste, steal or abuse TARP funds.”

Notwithstanding these laudable accountability measures by Congress and the president and these published goals and missions of Mr. Devaney and Mr. Barofsky, the currently available public-sector oversight mechanisms cannot adequately account for all of the funds, at least not in the near term. One U.S. senator recently said, “There’s no way we can have oversight over this money.”

Following are three proven public-private oversight mechanisms to assist the administration and Congress, as well as private companies, in meeting these new accountability challenges. Each is based on the time-tested adage, “You get what you inspect, not what you expect. And while Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner reportedly “favors aggressive use of all available tools … to bolster confidence in the future,” none of the following “available tools” has yet to be applied in the context of either TARP or stimulus oversight.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, New York City demonstrated a private-sector-based accountability paradigm to augment government accountability mechanisms in those exigent circumstances. At the time of the terrorist attack, there already existed a trade association known as the International Association of Independent Private Sector Inspectors General, to whose members the city turned when it suspended normal bidding rules to hire multiple construction companies expeditiously to clean up the rubble at ground zero.

New York had neither the time nor the resources to set up a special government oversight mechanism for the clean-up project. Instead, the city hired four private companies, “all run by former federal prosecutors,” independently “to monitor the contractors and subcontractors working at the site,” according to the Oct. 5, 2001, New York Times.

These private-sector inspectors general established and monitored oversight mechanisms within the private companies, such as fraud hot lines and whistleblower protection. They also reported to the city government, and indirectly to the taxpayers, on how well the emergency money was being spent.

In another context, the “independent monitor” function has proved to be an effective model for the government to ensure that accountability measures agreed to by private-sector companies are complied with. In March 2008, the Justice Department prescribed guidelines for choosing and deploying “independent monitors” in the context of deferred and non-prosecution agreements. Those guidelines could easily be modified and adapted by state and local governments to allow for similar public-private partnership projects to meet the challenge of providing clear guidelines and oversight mechanisms to ensure that all the stimulus money is spent wisely.

Finally, as the duty of public accounting is based on a constitutional imperative, there is no reason the private-sector inspectors general and independent monitors could not - even without any new legislation - take the same oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” as is required of every member of Congress and every other “individual elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed service” (U.S. Code Title 5, 3331).

When it comes to the constitutionally required public accounting on how our government is spending our money, “We the People” deserve no less.

Louis J. Freeh is the former director of the FBI.

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