Friday, November 19, 2010

POGO writes Pres Obama about State's Inspector General, urges appointment of a "truly independent and aggressive" IG

Retired diplomat, Patricia Kushlis of WhirledView has long been blogging about HR issues at the State Department and the Office of the Inspector General's oversight work at the State Department. Her latest post from October 12 is titled, "Smoking Gun Or Whitewash - the Continuing State Department Human Resources Saga" where she writes:

Last March, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (the Department is still without an Inspector General since Cookie Krongard left the building under a cloud during the Bush administration) signed off on the results of its investigation of the “integrity and fairness” of the Foreign Service Selection Board Process between 2004 and 2008. This OIG investigation began in July 2009, and ended in October 2009.

The original task - as assigned to the OIG by the Under Secretary for Management – was to investigate the integrity of the process from top to bottom. The OIG, nevertheless, managed to get the job whittled down to an investigation of the system as it applies primarily to Class One Officers and the Senior Foreign Service with a few paragraphs dealing with Foreign Service Specialist complaints and implications of Foreign Service expansion thrown in.

On the surface, the report begins as a total white wash. Its first key judgment concludes that “the processes by which annual Selection Boards promote, low-rank, and award Foreign Service personnel are fundamentally fair and trustworthy.” If you stop reading there, you’ll undoubtedly conclude that all’s right in Foggy Bottom’s Human Resources world whether the bottom is visible through all the murk obfuscating the system’s operations - or not.  

Active links added above. You can read the entire post and the rest of her "the State Department needs a broom" posts here.

Now, the watchdog group, POGO (remember the scandalous Kabul embassy guards snafu?) has turned its attention to the State Department's Office of the Inspector General.

On November 18, POGO, the Project on Government Oversight wrote a letter to President Obama questioning the independence of the State Department's Inspector General.  Actually -- this would be the Deputy Inspector General, Ambassador Harold W. Geisel, who has been in an acting capacity since June 2008. POGO writes:
[A] POGO investigation has found that the Department of State has been without a permanent IG for nearly three years. In addition, our investigation has identified a number of serious concerns about the independence of State’s de facto IG, Ambassador Harold W. Geisel.[3] These concerns illustrate some of the inherent problems associated with State’s long-standing pattern of utilizing career management officials with Foreign Service experience as IG in an acting capacity—a practice the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has argued “creates at a minimum an appearance of a conflict of interest at the very top.”[4] We urge that you promptly nominate a truly independent and aggressive permanent State IG.

This request is particularly pressing in light of an October 12, 2010, external peer review of the section of the State Office of Inspector General (OIG) responsible for “oversight and assistance for high-cost, high-risk Department programs located in crisis and post conflict areas and countries,” which is called the Middle East Regional Office (MERO).[5] The review, conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) OIG on behalf of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), identified numerous troubling deficiencies in MERO’s performance.[6] One of the deficiencies was MERO’s regular issuance of audit report conclusions not fully supported by evidence. That finding caused MERO to reclassify all audits completed from its creation in January 2008 until September 30, 2009, as assessment reports, which means that MERO did not complete a single audit during that timeframe.
The GAO has repeatedly highlighted both the real and perceived threat posed to State OIG’s independence by this practice.[18] One of the concerns specific to officials with Foreign Service experience leading the OIG in an acting capacity, according to GAO, is the “personal impairments to independence that could result when reviewing the bureaus and posts of fellow Foreign Service officers and diplomats.”[19] For this reason, career Foreign Service Officers are specifically prohibited in statute from being appointed permanent IG.[20]
From January 2003 through May 2005, State OIG was led by four Acting IGs, all of whom were long-time Department employees with the rank of Ambassador.[22] Three of these four have followed their service as Acting IGs by going back into the Foreign Service as Ambassadors.[23] Following the departure of Krongard in January 2008, Ambassador Geisel took over as Acting IG and remains in charge of the office.[24] Geisel’s tenure as de facto IG has been extraordinarily long. He has not been vetted by Congress, which is especially important for IGs, who, under the Inspectors General Act of 1978, serve two masters: both the President and the Congress.[25]

Active links added above. You can read POGO's letter here.

After serving as the top US diplomat in Mauritius from 1996-1999, Ambassador Geisel retired from the US Foreign Service in 2001.  Prior to his being named as Acting IG in 2008, POGO apparently also received a letter from some nameless but "very concerned employees" of the State Department  who were very concerned about the prospect of having another former Ambassador as Acting IG.

The allegedly cozy relationship between the State's OIG and State's Management -- in particular, with the Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy, has also come into question:
"POGO’s investigation has also raised questions about Deputy IG Geisel’s personal ties to State’s management. Of particular concern is Geisel’s relationship with State Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy.

Emails obtained by POGO demonstrate in practice why it is important that IGs be independent from Management, both in appearance and fact. One email shows that State officials have raised serious concerns that Kennedy was inappropriately going to bat for a contractor. In the email, a State employee instructs staff to hold off on releasing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a contract to build a U.S. Embassy facility in Djibouti until Kennedy is able to decide the status of the contractor’s request to be qualified to bid. The company, Aurora, LLC, had not successfully qualified to bid on that project because of its history of poor work performance and was requesting a reconsideration, according to the email. (Attachment 2)

In response to news that the RFP would be delayed until Kennedy made up his mind, another State official replied in a subsequent email: “The above statement is a real problem. [Contracting Officer] makes the call—do we really want the [Under Secretary] advocating for a contractor?” (Attachment 2)

POGO has since learned from knowledgeable government sources that State OIG is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation involving Aurora, LLC, and Kennedy, who has been accused of influencing the award of contracts in Aurora’s favor. Geisel has recused himself from this investigation because of a perceived conflict of interest.

The anonymous letter and the leaked emails are all from 2008. Makes one wonder what precipitated the release now.

In any case, it does not look very good.  But the worse part is probably the third attachment, an email purportedly from Ambassador Geisel to Ambassador Kennedy where the former warns, “I told you before if we aren’t going to be a strong IG, Congress will give us another.” Also that part about "Shall I just call off the inspection or shall I call of the audit?" sounds odd and not quite what you'd expect from somebody who has an independent role.  Or how about "Please tell Baghdad to stop shooting its friends.” Is "Charlie Reese" in the email actually Ambassador Charles Ries who was the Coordinator for Economic Transition in Iraq at the U.S. Embassy Baghdad in 2008?  The email also made reference to a "Kathy" who was with Charlie in this "terrible, terrible meeting" with the MERO inspector -- is that Kathleen Austin-Ferguson,  the MGT person at Embassy Baghdad in 2008?

Well -- so, here is another excellent lesson why you need to read your email carefully before you hit send.  This did not end up in the front page of NYT, of course, but is now certainly doing the rounds in the House, the Senate, the White House and the internets. Read the email here.

On the alleged Geisel email, POGO tells President Obama, "This email is profoundly troubling because Geisel appears to be informing management that he is on their side and that his office needs to conduct just enough oversight to placate Congress and prevent a legitimately aggressive and independent IG from taking his place."

The watchdog group also writes that "Numerous State whistleblowers have come to POGO due to a perception within the Department that employees with knowledge of wrongdoing cannot go to the OIG because they believe it to be captured by management. An independent IG will restore faith among would-be whistleblowers that their tips will be investigated thoroughly and without bias in favor of management."

Don't know about whistleblowers but WhirledView did write in 2009 about "someone who went to the OIG late last year with explicit evidence of HR’s tampering with promotion boards. Despite a request to investigate the allegations by one of Chairman Waxman’s investigative staff, State’s delayed OIG’s response was to consult with the accused employees in HR and then to attempt to intimidate the individual in question by accusing the person of “being seen as crazy” if he or she continued to object to what seems to me to have now turned into blatant harassment based on questionable evidence."

On November 18, GovExec reported a response from the OIG press shop: "In a statement to Government Executive, IG spokesman Thomas Burgess defended Geisel's e-mail to Kennedy. "As he explained to congressional staff on July 29, 2010, the 'unreasonable expectations' referred to in the Aug. 22, 2008, e-mail was the attempt by Embassy Baghdad to keep OIG's numbers in Iraq below what we believed was needed to perform our oversight work," Burgess said. "The purpose of Mr. Geisel's e-mail was to emphasize to the department that a strong OIG needed to have a strong presence in Iraq. In fact, OIG stood firm and sent a full complement to Baghdad. The e-mail is absolutely appropriate and, as Mr. Geisel told the congressional staff, he is 'proud of it.' "

So there it is -- not a great way to end the week. And we have not heard the end of this --- 

Related items:
Attachment 1 | Letter from State's Very concerned employees
Attachment 2 | Email among DOS employees
Attachment 3 | Please tell Baghdad to stop shooting its friends Email
Leaked E-mails Show the State Department’s Top Watchdog May Lack Independence, November 18, 2010.

Related articles:
Leaked E-mails Show the State Department's Top Watchdog May Lack Independence (Common Dreams)
Watchdog calls for removal of State Department's interim IG
Watchdog group raises concerns about State IG Politico (blog)| Nov 18, 2010‎|
Company that bungled Baghdad embassy repeats in Gabon (McClatchy| Nov 17, 2008)
Howard J. Krongard, State IG Accused of Averting Probes (WaPo September 19, 2007)
Howard J. Krongard | Source Watch

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