- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The chairman of Amtrak has acknowledged that spending by the rail agency in hiring outside attorneys for Amtrak executives for an in-house investigation was “wasteful.”

Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper told six senior members of Congress in a recent letter that “funding counsel for both sides of an internal, non-criminal investigation is wasteful, particularly when the witnesses are not targets of the investigation.”

Mr. Carper’s comments contrast with Amtrak’s public statements defending the practice. The Washington Times reported this month that several top Amtrak officials had declined to participate in an investigation by the rail agency’s office of inspector general until they first were provided their own attorneys at the government-funded company’s expense.

It was an usual request considering that the officials were not targets of the probe.

At the time, Amtrak said the practice was standard corporate policy. But in his letter to Congress, Mr. Carper struck a different tone, saying Amtrak is reviewing its indemnification policies against those of other federal agencies.

Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Amtrak Treasurer Dale Stein, General Counsel Eleanor Acheson and others requested their own attorneys before agreeing to sit for interviews with the agency’s own inspector general, which was looking into potential conflicts of interest in the rail service’s 2008 hiring of a consulting firm.

The officials had been told they were not targets in the investigation, but they requested and received outside lawyers to represent them anyway, records show.

Mr. Carper finds himself under sharp scrutiny as three senior Republican lawmakers last week called on Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to order an investigation into whether the Amtrak chairman and Ms. Acheson ought to be fired for their handling of the ouster last year of the rail agency’s former longtime inspector general.

The lawmakers — Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee; Rep. Darrell Issa of California, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — cited “unlawful actions” by Mr. Carper and Ms. Acheson.

They requested the investigation after a congressional report released by Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa found that Amtrak last year got rid of Inspector General Fred Weiderhold after he uncovered waste and abuse in the top reaches of the company.

The congressional investigation also found that Amtrak never told Congress it was forcing Mr. Weiderhold out of his job, despite a law that requires prior notification. In addition, Amtrak paid Mr. Weiderhold a severance of $244,573 in part not to disparage Amtrak, according to the report.

In their recent letter to Mr. LaHood, the Republican lawmakers said Mr. Weiderhold’s ouster was targeted because of his “effective track record of exposing waste, fraud and abuse at the highest levels within Amtrak.”

Mr. Carper acknowledged that his handling of the situation was “less than optimal,” but said he stood by his decision.

“I do not believe that Amtrak’s actions rise to the level of ‘unlawful’ as alleged but believe they could have been more tactful and adhered more strictly to IG-related practices,” Mr. Carper wrote in his response letter, which he sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House oversight and transportation committees.

An Amtrak spokesman declined Tuesday to comment on Mr. Carper’s Sept. 24 letter, saying it speaks for itself. Also in the letter, Mr. Carper said he will be sending notices to Amtrak employees reminding them to cooperate with the inspector general’s office.

Amtrak has declined to say how much money the rail agency has spent on outside lawyers to represent officials during inspector general’s interviews.

Mr. Weiderhold left Amtrak in June 2009 after more than two decades as inspector general. His office had issued several findings that raised questions about Amtrak’s “excessive use” of outside attorneys, according to the congressional report.

The congressional probe also chided Mr. Carper for not knowing during an interview with congressional staff how much money Amtrak was spending on outside attorneys or whether Amtrak had any procedures to limit legal fees.

But in his letter, Mr. Carper insisted that Amtrak “has and is rigorously” implementing policies to hire and manage outside attorneys.

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