The Cable

State Dept's Internal Watchdogs Were Sent Home While Most Others Worked

As hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned to work on Thursday, the headcount at the State Department barely changed thanks to a clever use of rainy day funds preventing mass furloughs. But one office in Foggy Bottom wasn't so lucky: The Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

During the 16-day government shutdown, the internal government watchdog tasked with investigating fraud, waste and mismanagement was reduced to a skeleton crew unlike the vast majority of offices in the building. The disproportionate furlough allotment has led critics to accuse the department of undervaluing the watchdog office, though the department strongly disputes that.

"On day one, they sent home the IG's office without knowing how long the shutdown would last," a Congressional staffer familiar with State's shutdown planning told The Cable. "I think the Department's action speaks for itself about its commitment to transparency, accountability, and oversight." 

But State's IG spokesman Douglas Welty denied the allegation. "OIG does not feel ‘targeted' or ‘undervalued' at all," he said. "While there was certainly a significant impact on OIG operations with about 65% of our staff furloughed due to the government shutdown, work on several priority issues and projects continued."

Unlike the Pentagon, CIA or Treasury, which furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees, the State Department skated by during the shutdown, furloughing only about 340 people. But State's OIG, which has 318 total positions, absorbed the brunt of the furloughs, with only 85 employees working during the shutdown. (The only other offices with furloughs were the International Boundary Commission, the International Joint Commission and the International Boundary and Water Commission.)

The disproportionate furlough treatment is largely due to a quirk in how inspectors general offices receive funding, rather than a desire to punish the internal watchdog. "While a significant portion of appropriations for the department are designated as multi-year funds, most of OIG's funding is designated as single-year," Welty explained. "Without a 2014 appropriation, or a continuing resolution, OIG has little funding for operations."

But the optics of OIG taking a disproportionate share of the furloughs isn't great for an office with a history of being marginalized.

Until this June, the department had no appointed inspector general for five years, the longest such vacancy of any federal agency ever. For years, lawmakers hounded the department about the vacancy and it didn't help that The Washington Post reported in April 2011 that State Department leaders had urged President Obama not to appoint an inspector general.

But the appointment of Steve Linick, the former inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, eventually surfaced this summer following a bout of a high stakes brinksmanship by the then-obscure Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Before the junior senator had fixated on shutting down the federal government, he turned his gaze to the State Department where he pledged to place holds on every nomination until the appointment of an IG. "The position has been vacant for almost 2,000 days," said the Republican lawmaker. "This is a crucial oversight position and should be a priority for an agency facing substantial management challenges."

Days later, Linick was appointed for the job. Interestingly, his first day at OIG collided with this month's shutdown madness. "By coincidence,  the shutdown started one day after Steve Linick joined the office as our new inspector general," said Welty. "But he was able to use the opportunity to meet with senior staff and receive thorough briefings on OIG's organizational structure, operations and priority issues."

One of those priorities, say critics, should be restoring the office's reputation for independence, which took a hit this summer following allegations by a former IG investigator Aurelia Fedenisn.

Fedenisn had accused colleagues of influencing, manipulating or calling off investigations into misconduct by State Department employees on everything from using drugs, soliciting prostitutes and having sex with minors. The department denied the allegations, but launched an internal review of its practices.

Now that the IG's office is fully-staffed, following a last-minute deal by Senate Democrats and Republicans, Linick will be able to tackle those issues. But Bob Silverman, President of the American Foreign Service Association, says the shutdown has already caused a significant backlog for the office. "They were widely furloughed and now they're trying to catch up," he told The Cable. "If you're interested in oversight of how our embassies and diplomatic missions run, this was a real hit. They're now trying to catch up and get out of an operational hole."

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