WASHINGTON — The State Department’s top watchdog, Howard “Cookie” Krongard, quit in January 2008, accused of impeding a federal probe of corruption and waste in Iraq.
More than five years later, the job is still vacant.
The State Department is among five agencies in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet without an inspector general. Those departments account for more than half the nation’s $1.29 trillion discretionary budget. The empty posts have left a wide gap in oversight of spending on weapons, embassy security and technology, according to academics and watchdog organizations.
“When you look at the magnitude of the budgets that these inspectors general should be keeping an eye on, not having independent, aggressive audits of those agencies is very troubling,” said Joe Newman, a spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.
The longtime vacancies may have resulted from the Obama administration’s over-vetting of candidates in anticipation of “ugly” Senate confirmation processes, said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
“It’s not in the White House’s imagination that there’s an obstacle course on the Hill,” Tiefer, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, said in an interview.
Obama’s attempt to appoint an inspector general for the Homeland Security Department hit such a barrier in 2011. Richard Skinner had retired in February 2011, and Roslyn Mazer, then- inspector general of the Office of the Director for National Intelligence, was nominated to replace him.
Her confirmation vote was delayed after Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she would oppose Mazer in part because employees had raised concerns about her management style. The White House withdrew the nomination in June 2012, and the position remains unfilled.
The vetting and confirmation process may be contributing to delays in filling senior-level posts across the government.
Before he was confirmed as Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew answered 444 written questions, more than double the amount of questions asked of his predecessor, Timothy Geithner. Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, submitted answers to 1,000 questions from Republicans.
The watchdog vacancies returned to the spotlight this month after the Treasury Department’s inspector general exposed the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of the tax-exempt status of small-government advocacy groups. The IRS disclosed that it had singled out groups for extra examination based on whether their names included words such as “tea party” and “patriot.”
Lois Lerner, a midlevel agency official who oversees tax- exempt groups, acknowledged the practice and apologized. Lerner is being replaced on an acting basis, the IRS said last week. Steven Miller, the acting Internal Revenue Service commissioner, was forced to resign.
The five Cabinet agencies with inspector general vacancies include the departments of Defense, State, Labor, Interior and Homeland Security. They represented 58 percent of the government’s discretionary spending in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. The Pentagon alone accounts for half the total outlays.
Each position requires a presidential appointment. Once confirmed by the Senate, the inspectors general can be removed only by the president and with notification to Congress.
With no pending nominations for inspectors general at the departments, the White House says it’s working to fill the jobs.
“The Administration is firmly committed to strong Inspectors General, and we are working diligently to identify the best candidates to fill these unique posts,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said in an email. “The Administration supports the efforts of all of the IG Offices, including those currently being led by Acting IGs, as they work to ensure that taxpayers get the good government they deserve.”
Acting or deputy inspectors general and career staff perform audits during a vacancy. The Labor Department’s inspector general office’s work resulted in $142 million in monetary recoveries and fines from April 1 to Sept. 30, 2012.
The Pentagon’s inspector-general office recently reported that the Army risks wasting as much as $1.8 billion developing a replacement for the M4 carbine, produced by Colt Defense. The office is also reviewing Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet, the military’s most expensive weapons program.
Even so, those oversight offices just aren’t the same without a permanent watchdog, said Matthew D. Harris, a professor at the University of Maryland University College who trains current and incoming inspectors general for the Association of Inspectors General.
“Let’s say your boss is gone for a month and you’re going to act in his position,” Harris said. “You are just going to hold down the fort.”
Acting inspectors general “don’t feel they have the protection to make a decision because they’re not appointed,” he said. One way to prevent oversight is to not appoint anyone to those top positions, Harris said.
The inspector general role at the State Department has been empty for more than five years, the longest vacancy among the top watchdog positions since Obama took office.
The position at the Labor Department has been vacant since July 2009, when Gordon Heddell resigned and became the Pentagon’s inspector general. Then he resigned from the Pentagon post in December 2011, and the hole hasn’t been plugged. Homeland Security has lacked a permanent inspector general since February 2011, and Interior, since December 2011.
Secretary of State John Kerry in an April 17 hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs partly blamed the delay in nominating an inspector general on the vetting process.
“I’ve got some folks that I selected way back in February when I first came in and, we’re now April and I’m still waiting for the vetting to move,” Kerry said. “I’ve talked to the White House, they’re totally on board. They’re trying to get it moved.”
The State Department inspector general most recently confirmed by the Senate, Krongard, resigned after lawmakers in 2007 accused him of interfering with investigations of waste and fraud, including a Justice Department probe of security contractor Blackwater Worldwide.
He has denied any wrongdoing.
When asked to comment on the vacant seat, the State Department’s inspector-general office pointed to statistics showing increases in the number of the investigations. It also called attention to congressional testimony by Harold Geisel, now deputy inspector general.
The office had tripled the number of probes and had doubled its number of investigators since 2008, Geisel told U.S. lawmakers during an April 2011 House hearing.
Even so, he said he “would very, very, very much like to see a permanent IG.”
“I don’t have control over the nomination of a permanent IG,” Geisel said. “That has to come from the White House.”
With assistance from Julianna Goldman in Washington.