Washington, DC — A team of investigators from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General descended on El Paso, Texas this week, following claims of fraud, waste and abuse by top officials at the United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC), according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Investigators may not be able to interview the head of the agency, however, because Commissioner Bill Ruth has abruptly departed on personal leave.
The Inspector General is launching a wide-ranging investigation into disclosures by USIBWC General Counsel Robert McCarthy that the agency violated numerous federal laws and regulations, including alleged mismanagement of a $220 million Recovery Act program to raise levees along the Rio Grande.
On July 28, 2009, McCarthy reported to the Inspector General that USIBWC officials had conducted secret surveillance of agency employees, altered official government records, made false reports to the Inspector General, manipulated payrolls, misappropriated funds, built substandard levees and operated unsafe dams and wastewater treatment plants.
Three days later, on July 31, 2009, Commissioner Ruth, a holdover Bush appointee, terminated McCarthy’s employment on the grounds that the attorney was insufficiently “congenial.” McCarthy has challenged that action through an appeal with the United States Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which reviews illegal personnel actions, charging unlawful retaliation for protected whistleblowing.
Inspector General investigators in El Paso this week are concentrating on claims that officials altered federal documents to cover up other malfeasance. A forensic computer specialist will be looking for evidence that electronic communications or other documents were illegally altered or destroyed. Another investigator has been lining up interviews with current and former USIBWC employees.
“This is the first of several teams of investigators expected to visit the agency over the coming weeks,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who welcomed the investigation. “Hopefully this probe will be the first step in rooting out the culture of corruption that has characterized this agency for too long.”
PEER is calling on the Obama Administration to remove Commissioner Ruth pending the appointment of a new Commissioner, to reinstate McCarthy, and to institute structural reforms making the agency accountable to the State Department.
The Inspector General will not be looking into McCarthy’s claims of retaliation. “That issue is separate from other illegal conduct that Mr. McCarthy disclosed,” noted PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, who filed the retaliation complaint on McCarthy’s behalf. “We are seeking to rescind Mr. McCarthy’s removal as soon as possible. The law is supposed to ensure that public servants need not risk their careers in order to shine a light on malfeasance.”