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New Senate Panel Explores the Plight of Watchdogs

By Ed O'Keefe

A new Senate subcommittee tasked with tracking government contracting heard today from federal watchdogs seeking greater investigatory and enforcement powers and more staffing, common requests now more likely to get matched with legislative action amid the nation’s growing appetite for a closer accounting of taxpayer dollars.

Federal spending on contracting ballooned to more than $500 billion last year, one of the reasons that lawmakers earlier this year established a subcommittee devoted to procurement. Part of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, the panel is chaired by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former prosecutor and state auditor and close friend of President Obama who has devoted much of her Senate tenure to government oversight and management issues. She has kept close watch on economic recovery funds in recent months and supports the expansion of federal watchdog efforts.

"This isn't about partisanship, and it isn't about denigrating government contractors or the federal government,” McCaskill said at the hearing. “Our Subcommittee has an important responsibility to make government contracting as honest, transparent, and accountable as possible.”

In order to do so, inspectors general said yesterday they need subpoena powers on par with those afforded to grand juries. Currently inspectors general must notify subjects of an investigation before they can obtain financial records, an impediment to completing full and timely investigations, said General Services Administration Inspector General Brian Miller. He suggested that current restrictions might compel suspects to destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses or flee the country.

“As an illustration, telling someone like Bernie Madoff that he’s under investigation would only give him an opportunity to hide or transfer ill-gotten gains before the government had an opportunity to understand the full extent of his crimes,” Miller said.

Watchdogs also generally support legislation that would compel federal employees and others to actually show up for interviews with inspector general special agents, actions not currently required in all cases, said J. Anthony Ogden, inspector general for the Government Printing Office.

“The issue is about access,” he said, noting that inspectors general need complete access to contractor employees, former employees and subcontractors in order to fully complete investigations. Part of the reason IGs lack such powers is that most of the laws authorizing their existence were written more three decades ago.

“The contracting workforce has expanded significantly since many of these laws and rules were put in place, so in order to kind of catch up with the time we have to look at the entire scope of the issue and realize that the reach now for IGs has to be to contractors and subcontractors,” Ogden said.

The new Senate panel plans to hold hearings at least once every six weeks, according to McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser. It anticipates a focus on the use of foreign contractor firms, how government contractors and the military plan to withdraw troops and equipment from Iraq and expand operations in Afghanistan and the suspension and debarment of contracting companies.

By Ed O'Keefe  | April 21, 2009; 5:55 PM ET
Categories:  Congress, Oversight  
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Wow, a subcommittee on procurement. That should fix things. Two of the most critized government systems are the procurement system and the personnel system. They were both designed to try to prevent bad things from happening rather than to make good things happen, which accounts for many of their shortcomings. What we need are fundamental changes to these processes to make them work better, not more people to work in them or inspectors to watch over them. The quality needs to be built into the process.

Posted by: bigtom6156 | April 22, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

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