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Robbins: What are inspectors general and why do they matter?

It’s not the kind that you salute.

In fact the “general” in “inspector general” is closer in meaning to “the whole enchilada” than it is to military brass.  An inspector general is an investigative official. While the term, and office it represents, can and does crop up in military organizations, it is as common — perhaps more so — in civilian settings.

As you likely know, the president has recently been playing whack-a-mole — or more precisely — whack an inspector general lately. As such, it is good and timely and appropriate that we John Q. Publics and Jane Q. Citizens understand precisely what inspectors general are and what they do and why we should all have our undies in a bit of a bunch when the president plays fast and loose with them.

Keeping a close watch

Think of an inspector general as the love child of a watchdog and the physical incarnation of conscience. Inspectors general lead their respective organizations that are charged with examining the actions of their particular government agency. 

Like a secret, everybody seems to have one. In fact, there are great bunches of them in the federal government. Everyone from the Agency for International Development to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to the Department of the Interior to the Department of Veterans Affairs has one. That is, unless, since last I checked, the president has offed another one.

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The first civilian Office of Inspector General was established under the Department of Health and Human Services by an act of Congress in 1976. The aim was for the OIG to fight waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare, Medicaid, and several fistfuls of other HHS programs.  

The Inspector General Act of 1978 created 12 departmental inspectors general. Thirty years later, in October 2008, the Inspector General Reform Act of that year added IGs in various other areas. By the mid-2010s, there were 72 statutory IGs.

The various IG offices employ special agents, including criminal investigators (often armed) and auditors. In addition, federal offices of inspectors general employ forensic auditors, evaluators, inspectors, administrative investigators, and a variety of other specialists.  Their activities focus on the detection and prevention of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of the government programs and operations within their parent organizations.  

IG investigations may be internal — targeting government employees — or external — targeting grant recipients, contractors, or the beneficiaries of the various loans and subsidies offered through the thousands of federal domestic and foreign assistance programs.

Like a barn owl on a mouse, IGs are meant to keep a sharp eye on their prey, in the instance of IGs, fraud and abuse.

Some inspectors general are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Both the inspector general of the Department of Labor and the inspector general of the U.S. Agency for International Development are presidentially appointed. The remaining inspectors general are designated by their respective agency heads. Presidentially appointed IGs can only be removed, or terminated, from their positions by the President of the United States, whereas designated inspectors general can be terminated by the agency head. In both cases, Congress must be notified of the termination, removal, or reassignment.

The IG Act of 1978 requires that inspectors general be selected based upon their qualifications and not political affiliation. This is, however, not always the case with presidentially appointed inspectors general and they are often selected, at least in part, because of their political relationships and party affiliation. An example that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb was the 2001 Republican appointment (and resignation under fire) of Janet Rehnquist, daughter of former Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, to the post of inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Oops.

Silenced for political reasons

So…

In the last month or so, the president has canned a veritable fistful of IGs.  In early April, the president fired the intelligence community’s inspector general.  Next, he sent the  head of the group charged with overseeing a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, um … packing.  And early this month, he moved to replace a watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services who reported on hospital shortages of medical supplies. 

The latest was the State Department IG who was looking into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged self-serving hanky panky. When asked, Trump said he fired him because “Mike [Pompeo] asked him to.”

Well, then, what’s wrong with that?

It’s this.

When the watchdogs who are charged with watching see something and speak up but are then silenced for political reasons, it defeats the very cause for which they exist. Purges are rarely a good thing. Particularly when those being purged are those charged with oversight of those in power when they take advantage of the public wealth and weal.


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