By Michael Fruitman
The headline from the June 6 Washington Post was like a stab to the heart: How a watchdog whitewashed its oversight of FEMA’s disaster response with ‘feel good’ reports. Shocking. With nearly three decades of experience at institutions whose very mission is accountability, I wondered, could this even be true? And if so, why?
While “auditors in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general’s office confirmed problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s performance in Louisiana — and in 11 other states hit over 5 years by hurricanes, mudslides and other disasters — the auditors’ boss, John V. Kelly, instead directed them to produce what they called ‘feel-good reports’ that airbrushed most problems and portrayed emergency responders as heroes overcoming vast challenges.”
Inspectors General are many times the last bastion of fact-finding and truth-telling in our federal departments and agencies–save for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) itself. Their reputations for unbiased auditing and reporting are the coin of the realm; without it, they have nothing. This is why the Congress relies so heavily on GAO and IG reporting, helping hold agencies accountable for missteps, deliberate or otherwise. So how did this disaster at the DHS IG happen? To quote The Post,
A manager interviewed by the committee called the reports “useless” but said the staff “kept producing them because that was what [Deputy Inspector General] John Kelly wanted.”
Last month DHS OIG released a 14-month internal review of how Kelly, a career government auditor who rose to acting inspector general in late 2017, chose to flatter FEMA’s staff in some reports, instead of holding them accountable.
Again, from The Post:
Kelly’s staff routinely praised FEMA’s initial disaster responses from 2012 to 2017 with “superlative language,” investigators found — and they followed a formula. Each audit found the response “effective and efficient.” Some reports used fawning terms. They identified challenges FEMA faced. But invariably they praised the agency for overcoming them. Other negative information, if it pointed to systemic problems, was removed from drafts and sometimes placed in separate “spin-off reports,” the internal review found. The audits made no recommendations for improvements.
Under pressure from Congress, the inspector general in 2017 retracted and purged from its website the Louisiana flooding report plus, the following year, 12 other audits of FEMA’s initial responses. The office called them “not compliant” with federal auditing standards.
Jennifer Costello, the deputy inspector general, wrote to the head of the internal review team on May 21, calling the “retraction of publicly issued reports because they are not reliable . . . not an insignificant matter.” The reports, Costello wrote, “represent millions of wasted taxpayer dollars and understandably cast doubt on our credibility.” She said the inspector general’s office needs to “hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold the Department when conducting oversight of its programs and operation.” Kelly recused himself from the review.
The internal review has led to changes: a new practice of rotating auditors to “promote the objectivity and independence,” a reduced “reliance on testimonial evidence” and an increased “reliance on source documentation.” The office is also training auditors to comply with auditing standards and to maintain independence from the people and agencies they are evaluating.
John Roth, who preceded Kelly as inspector general, called the flawed reports an aberration. He acknowledged, though, that the mistakes underscore a challenge for inspectors general, who want to maintain credibility with the agencies they oversee while they are issuing critical reports. (Emphasis added.)
This reminds one of the impossible situation in which many federal workers find themselves. With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for example, along with looking out for passenger safety is the mission of “promoting the industry.” It’s easy to see how these can come into conflict. Similarly, the relationship between an inspector general’s office and an agency must not become overly close, lest its impartiality be lost. And the damaged reputations of agencies discourages the work ethic of career employees as well as future recruitment.
Late-breaking: The DHS OIG is now scheduled for a 2020 independent review by another inspector general’s office; this is not unusual within the IG community..