Defense Department watchdog case backlog is unacceptable, Grassley says
Floor Speech of Sen. Chuck Grassley
Defense Department Inspector General Hotline Backlog
Delivered Thursday, April 27, 2017
I come to the floor today to spotlight a potential failure of leadership at the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General. A large number of Hotline cases have been set aside, neglected, and possibly forgotten.
The Hotline plays a critical role in the Inspector General’s core mission of rooting out fraud, waste and abuse. It is the command and control link between whistleblowers and investigators. To succeed, Hotline “tips” need quick and decisive action. But speed is not one of its chief assets. Last year, at my request, I was given a 12-page spreadsheet, dated November 8, 2016. It lists 406 Hotline cases that had been open for more than 2 years or over 730 days.
I was stunned by what I saw. I count 240 cases – over half the total – that have been open for more than 1,000 days. Many were over 1,300 days. Some were right at the four-year marker – 1,460 days. The oldest is now pushing 1,600 days. And five-year old cases are not unheard-of.
When cases remain open for years, they become stale. Inattention breeds neglect. Work grinds to a halt. Cases slowly fade from memory. This is unacceptable. The Deputy IG for Administrative Investigations, Mrs. Marguerite C. Garrison, is in charge of the Hotline. She is accountable for the backlog. The backlog shows a lack of commitment to the Hotline creed and the plight of whistleblowers.
Here’s why: Hotline posters are displayed throughout the department. They are a bugle call for whistleblowers. They encourage whistleblowers to step forward at considerable risk. In return, they deserve a quick and honest response.
Allowing their reports to slide into a deep, dark hole in limbo for two, three, four years or more leaves whistleblowers exposed, vulnerable to retaliation, and distrusting of the system designed to protect them. This kind of treatment will discourage others from stepping forward in the future.
Hotline officials, including Mrs. Garrison, were questioned about the backlog on December 15, 2016. They attempted to deflect responsibility elsewhere and showed little interest in the problem. After numerous follow-up inquiries, a second meeting was requested.
At the March 30 meeting, they were singing a different song. They tried to dispel the notion that a surge in case closures was triggered by my inquiry. To the contrary, they said, it was part of routine, ongoing “clean-up of the Hotline mess” that began in March 2013. They report 107,000 cases were swept up, including so-called “bad dog” cases from 2002.
This explanation may be fiction. Mrs. Garrison should know that the 406 cases date back to 2012-13. After floating around that long, cases are anything but routine. They are tough problems. That’s why they sat on the Hotline docket for two, three, four-plus years, dead in the water … Forgotten.
What they needed was forceful direction from the top. They needed to be handed off to a tiger team. But that didn’t happen. Priorities became an after-thought. And the Hotline “mess” got more nourishment. Then, finally, the “routine, ongoing” clean-up reached the 406 most egregious cases –the worst of the worst – the ones that bring me to the floor today.
Since January, I received five updated spreadsheets, trumpeting the closure of 200 of these so-called “bad dogs” – done with due diligence, I hope. Though late and incomplete, the surge shows what’s possible when management starts managing. The backlog can be controlled and eliminated. So why did it take top managers so long to see the light and get on the stick? Maybe they just didn’t care – at least not until the Senator from Iowa started asking questions?
Then and only then did they initiate what has been characterized as “aggressive management oversight.” Well, praise the Lord. Those words warm my heart. But Deputy IGs need to exercise aggressive oversight at all times, not just when embarrassing revelations get some daylight.
Good managers don’t need a Senator looking over their shoulder to know what needs to be done. That’s no way to run a railroad. The managers responsible for the Hotline “mess” need more supervision.
One of Mrs. Garrison’s other directorates -- Whistleblower Reprisal Investigations or the WRI unit – is also crying out for help. It’s facing its own Hotline-style tsunami. It has a staff of 56 personnel but only 28 of them – or 50 percent – are actually assigned to investigative teams. They complete 50 to 60 reports per year. With some 120 cases under investigation at any time, a large number inevitably get rolled forward from one year to the next. The backlog could easily double or triple over the next few years. In November, 38 cases were beyond acceptable limits. As of March 28, the oldest was 1,394 days. While many of these cases were recently closed, new ones keep popping up on the list.
Despite very substantial increases in money and personnel since 2013, the Deputy IG still seems overwhelmed by the volume of work. While beefing up WRI may be necessary, Mr. Fine and his deputies need to do more with what they have. With an annual budget of 320 million dollars and a 1,500-person workforce, efficiencies can surely be found.
Some units are said to be “top-heavy” and ripe for belt-tightening. The investigative processes are notoriously cumbersome and could be streamlined. The Audit Office, with 520 workers, turns out mostly second-rate reports. It needs strong leadership and re-direction.
The Obama Administration never seemed to take these problems seriously. Weak leadership gave us the Hotline backlog. Weak leadership is giving us the continuing mismatch between the work-force and work-load. Both are messy extensions of a much more harmful leadership problem – a festering sore that is eating away at integrity and independence.
This is what I am hearing: Top managers have allegedly been tampering with investigative reports and then retaliating against supervisory investigators who call them to account. This is sparking allegations that a “culture of corruption” is thriving in the Inspector General’s office. I gave my colleagues a glimpse of this problem in a speech here on April 6, 2016. I used the fifth and final report of the Admiral Losey investigation to illuminate the problem.
That report was allegedly “doctored” by senior managers. Investigators were allegedly ordered to “change facts” and “remove evidence” of suspected retaliation. Mrs. Garrison even sent a letter that cleared the admiral long before investigators had completed a review of the evidence. This was a very serious mistake, giving the appearance of impropriety.
Was this a cover-up to facilitate the admiral’s pending promotion? Thankfully, Acting IG Fine intervened. He showed real courage. After taking a first-hand look, he backed up the investigators, overturning some – but not all -- unsupported changes. He helped to bring evidence and findings back into sync. I thank him from the bottom of my heart.
But Mr. Fine has more work to do. The alleged doctoring of the Losey report, I am told, is not an isolated case. There are at least five others just like it – and probably more. All need oversight. As I understand it, the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) is completing a review of these matters and could rule in favor of WRI investigators. They blew the whistle on all the alleged tampering going on and got hammered for it.
If top managers are tampering with reports and retaliating against their own people who report it, then how can they be trusted to run the agency’s premier whistleblower oversight unit? All the pertinent issues need to be resolved. And they demand high-level attention. So I call on the new Secretary of Defense and Acting IG to work together to address these problems: #1) The Hotline needs to be brought up to acceptable standards under stronger management; #2) All potential solutions to the workload-workforce mismatch need be explored, including internal re-alignments; and #3) An independent review of all cases where alleged tampering occurred should be conducted, to include an examination of the Garrison letter clearing an admiral in the midst of an investigation; if tampering and retaliation, did, in fact, occur, then the culprits should be fired; I look forward to receiving a full report.