Washington, DC — A sizeable and growing segment of the investigators and supervisors within the Interior's Department's Office of Inspector General (IG) believes the office is pulling punches to avoid embarrassing the administration, according to new staff survey results posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These concerns echo criticisms by Congress and PEER that under acting Inspector General Mary Kendall the Interior IG has compromised its "independence and honesty" to please political superiors, in the words of one agent.
The 2012 survey was completed by 82% of all IG staff with final results reported in mid-September. A key finding was employee response to the question of whether the IG "conducts its work in a manner that is independent (free from improper influence) from the Department [of Interior]." Nearly one in seven respondents said no and more than a quarter would not say either way. Less than 60% said yes, a lower percentage than in surveys from the previous two years. Staff comments included the following:
- "I think there is widespread distrust and low morale in the organization right now. There are at least perceptions the acting IG and COS [Chief of Staff] did not do the right thing, ie [sic], improperly quashed investigations, and have not been forthright with Congress";
- "Wake up and quit trying to 'get approval' from DOI [Interior]...we have a job to do"; and
- "Be careful with how much reports get softened to avoid 'slamming' the Department in the interest of maintaining a good relationship."
These issues are brought into stark relief by a House Natural Resource Committee investigation into whether the IG skewed its own report into claims that the Obama White House and top Interior officials falsely reported that its 6-month Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium following the 2010 BP spill had been endorsed by outside experts. Internal IG emails complained its probe was improperly blunted. In her September 19th memo transmitting survey results to staff, Ms. Kendall complained of "scrutiny from the House Resources Committee" among the factors which may have affected results.
"As an acting IG, Mary Kendall's tenure depends upon pleasing the very people she is supposed to investigate. As a result, this watchdog is not just on a very tight leash, it is on a choke chain," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "To be effective and remain independent, an IG must be willing on a daily basis to get canned or resign if the mission is compromised."
Pleasing her superiors entails not only softening reports or quashing probes it can also include targeting employees who inconvenience senior Interior managers. Last week, for example, it was revealed that the IG conducted a controversial investigation into Arctic scientists as part of an effort to stem and discredit the source of embarrassing leaks. The more than two-year effort identified no scientific misconduct but did interrupt one scientist's extensive research and disrupt his career.
Although Kendall seeks to be nominated as the permanent IG, even after confirmation every IG serves at the pleasure of the President – a status often cited for the tendency of many IGs to concentrate on low-level misconduct and eschew probing improper or imprudent political interference. This has long been a pattern at Interior IG, one perfected by Kendall's mentor, Earl Devaney, who was Interior IG until 2009.
"Under the current system, IGs revel in petty scandals and flee profound corruption," Ruch added. "If the Inspector Generals were truly independent, groups like PEER would not be so infernally busy."