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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 06/29/2010

Does Virginia need a Sherlock Holmes?

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

It's ironic, isn't it? Leaders often promise to shrink government by creating more government.

An example: Last year, President Obama named the federal government's first chief performance officer, hiring Jeffrey Zients to weed out ineffective government programs.

States are finding it popular to create whole new offices designed to act as watchdogs, often with broad powers. More states added inspectors general in the past two decades than ever before, prompting formation of the Association of Inspectors General in 1996.

The clout of these Sherlock Holmes varies widely. Some don't get much beyond the yawn of doing financial and performance audits, similar to a state auditor or comptroller. But others are structured to look more like the FBI. Louisiana's inspector general can go so far as to issue search warrants and subpoena documents.

Half of all U.S. states employ executive inspectors general, appointed by the governor and with jurisdiction over multiple state agencies. But Virginia's not one of them.

Instituting an inspector general in Virginia was recommended by the 2002 reform commission created under then-Gov. Mark Warner, but legislative efforts to do so never got very far. Now, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell wants to turn Virginia's internal auditor into an inspector general, with expanded powers that he hasn't yet outlined.

Does Virginia need another oversight agency? We already have departmental inspectors general attached to some of our largest agencies, state external and internal auditors and the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission -- an agency that annually releases a dozen or more reports on government programs.

And maybe it's true that half of all states have inspectors general -- but they're the ones that need it, right? The Midwest's hotbed of corruption -- otherwise known as Illinois -- created an inspector general six years ago.

You could argue that Virginia doesn't need to waste money on an inspector general to oversee a government that looks squeaky clean -- at least compared with other states. On the other hand, you can't tell how dirty the house is until you open the shades and start sweeping.

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | June 29, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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