Former watchdog has ideas on dealing with poorly performing IGs

A former IG argues there needs to be a better way of holding IGs accountable for their performance.

A former IG argues there needs to be a better way of holding IGs accountable for their performance. Isaac Donley / EyeEm

The former acting Pentagon inspector general asks, “Who is watching the watchdogs?” Proposed solutions include possibly imposing term limits on IGs, making it mandatory that presidents specify reasons for their removal and others.

In light of recent allegations of mismanagement against the Homeland Security Department inspector general, a former federal watchdog has offered some suggestions on how to make the oversight community more accountable. 

DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari has been accused in the past month of mishandling investigations into missing text messages from Secret Service agents in the lead up to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. (In a recent email to staff obtained by Politico, Cuffari pushed back on what he called “this onslaught of meritless criticism.”) Lawmakers have called for him to step aside from the investigation and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last Friday the situation with Cuffari “is being investigated.”

“The serious allegations regarding Cuffari…raise the larger question— ‘Who is watching the watchdogs?’” wrote Glenn Fine, who served as acting Pentagon inspector general and then was removed by President Trump in April 2020, in a piece for the Brooking Institution published on Tuesday. “We need a better way to hold IGs accountable and a process to remove the very few who are not adequately performing their challenging responsibilities.” 

Fine, who is now a nonresident fellow for governance studies at Brookings, suggested the following reforms to make sure the removal process is clear, but also can’t be manipulated for political purposes: 

  1. Congress should clarify that the president has to give specific reasons for removing an IG, “not just cite a general loss of confidence;”
  2. Congress should consider creating term limits to avoid IGs staying in their positions for too long; 
  3. To improve how allegations of misconduct of IGs are investigated, Congress should give the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s Integrity Committee a permanent staff and give CIGIE itself a dedicated, permanent budget; and,
  4. Lawmakers should consider asking CIGIE or an independent committee to “promulgate minimum standards of efficiency and effectiveness for IGs.” The committee could make recommendations to the president on IGs to remove if they don’t meet those standards.

Fine said that over his time serving as an IG across five presidential administrations, “I saw most of my IG colleagues performing their important duties in an exemplary manner.” However he added that he also saw a few cases in which there were “IGs who did not have the appropriate skill set or who were not suited temperamentally for their role. And a few IGs began underperforming over time and did not continue to make the hard decisions their job required.” 

Prior to his role as acting Defense IG he served as Justice IG for 11 years “and after that amount of time change was good for the organization (and for me),” Fine wrote, when arguing for term limits. He noted the FBI director and head of the Government Accountability Office have limited tenures. 

Similar to what Fine said, CIGIE previously advocated for the council to have a direct annual appropriation as the current funding method is “an inefficient and complicated process of interagency collections individually deposited into a revolving fund.” 

Several recent bipartisan legislative proposals in both the House and the Senate would clarify removal proceedings for IGs to protect them from political interference. Proposed reforms have also been aimed at increasing IG independence and empowerment as well as strengthening Congress’ oversight of the IG community. So far these reforms have not been passed by both chambers of Congress.   

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who introduced some of the reform provisions and has called on Cuffari to recuse himself from the Jan. 6 investigation, declined to comment on Fine’s specific legislative proposals. 

Steve Katz, who previously served as an IG selection advisor for the Clinton White House, counsel for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chief counsel to the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board and senior advisor at the Government Accountability Office, told Government Executive he has long thought there needs to be more oversight and transparency into the selection process for IGs.

He also said it is a “sad and troubling reality that underlies so many of the problems coming to light because of how Donald Trump and others in the Trump administration retaliated against, removed, improperly appointed acting IGs, and tried to exploit loopholes in IG appointment statutes.” 

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