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On a Short Leash

The Inspector General's Office has become a mere shadow of its former watchdog self, forced into obscurity by limited resources, a shifting mission and different leadership.

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When Gov. Buddy Roemer lost his bid for re-election in 1991, he swallowed his pride and made one major request of Edwin Edwards, who was about to move back into the Mansion and begin an unprecedented fourth term as Louisiana's governor. Having to get on bended knee before Edwards had to be all the more distasteful for Roemer, as EWE had made the younger reform-minded governor his whipping boy during the legendary contest.

So what was so important to Roemer that he was willing to humble himself and ask a favor of his political nemesis?

It was the Inspector General's Office, which Roemer created during his first year in office as a means of ferreting out fraud and corruption. An independent investigative agency that answers only to the governor, the office made headlines in its infancy by uncovering contract irregularities, falsified documents and other curiosities in state government. It was a hallmark of Roemer's administration.

Roemer had promised voters a "revolution" when he was elected -- largely by slamming the lax ethical practices of the Edwards Era and promising a new era of reform -- but many of Roemer's promises were undercut by a Legislature still enamored of EWE. When the dust settled in 1991, one of the tangible successes of Roemer's solitary term was the Inspector General's Office. But, because the IGO was created by executive order, its fate was now in Edwards' hands.

"One of the things I did when I lost to Duke and Edwards is I asked Edwards to keep the office alive," Roemer recalls. "I didn't know if he was going to do it. Edwards didn't like second opinions or watchdogs or oversight."

Edwards, who is presently serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for fraud and corruption, had promised during the runoff against David Duke that he would preserve the office -- but he also promised not to support casino gambling. He reneged on the casino pledge, but kept the IGO in place -- along with the man whom Roemer named to the post, Bill Lynch -- but with some exceptions.

In classic Edwards style, he barred Lynch from investigating the governor or his staff. That prohibition was as much a shot at Lynch, who had hounded The Silver Zipper as a tenacious investigative reporter for The Times-Picayune, as it was at the office itself and what it represented.

Subsequent governors also maintained the office, but in a more hands-off manner.

While the IGO is still under the executive branch, it is now recognized by the courts and no longer needs to be re-established every four years. At the same time, since Lynch died in February 2004, no one has been able to return the office to its heyday.

Ironically, it was Foster -- who portrayed himself as a reformer -- who started the disturbing trend of whittling down the office's resources. Since Foster's first term, the number of investigations has dropped dramatically, the staff has dwindled by half, the IGO's core mission has been altered and agencies have been admonished behind closed doors rather than in public reports.

Under pressure in March 2005 to reinvigorate the office, Blanco named as inspector general Sharon Buchanan Robinson, who had previously served as the state's assistant legislative auditor. She now makes $120,000 a year in the job, which is $25,000 more than the governor makes.

But, no matter how good the pay, Robinson has big shoes to fill.

Lynch was a modern-day Jeremiah. He immediately made headlines with his "Gotcha!" style of busting bureaucrats and poking holes in politicians' schemes. As an investigative reporter for 40 years with the Picayune and other publications, that part of the job came naturally to him.

Robinson is the antithesis of those things. She is cautious. She is understated. She also has transitioned the office from "reactive auditing to proactive assistance." In short, she would rather prevent state agencies from making mistakes than bust their chops after catching them in the act.

"Sometimes a watchdog can growl loud enough to keep people away," Robinson says. "They don't have to bite you."

Since taking over, Robinson has overseen the publication of only six investigative reports. Another two are pending approval in the Governor's Office; one is being completed; and four more are in progress. Those published this year include investigations of the Orleans Levee District, dental services contracts and the Louisiana Manufactured Housing Commission.

If you don't know the history of the office, it's hard to grasp the significance of that decrease in activity.

During the office's first decade, from 1988 to 1998, Lynch sent 315 reports to the governor for review, an average of more than 31 each year. In 2000 and 2001, during the time frame that Foster was chipping away at the office, reports decreased to 10 and 15 a year, respectively.

One of the reasons reports are running short today is that Robinson has chosen to handle certain issues through personal correspondence instead of issuing investigative reports to the media and others.

"Some of them don't make the paper, and many of them just don't make for juicy reports, but we do keep people out of trouble," Robinson says. "It's just mundane stuff. We are watching the departments' backs, though."

One example she provided was a rather complicated matter involving the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy and $2.2 million in questionable reimbursements it was seeking from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In a letter, Robinson told the board to fix the problem.

When asked if her office would investigate what happened, Robinson declines. When asked if the problem involved any criminal intent or wrongdoing, she says it's difficult to tell.

"We don't know," she says. "For all we know, some of the $6.4 million that was acceptable (as found by the audit investigation) could have had problems."

"Fraud is hard to prove," she added in a follow-up interview.

The use of correspondence to resolve some matters is nothing new. Historically, most IGO cases are resolved without issuing reports, and agencies are often allowed to take care of discrepancies on their own.

A public records request of recent letters, however, reveals all sorts of alleged and actual wrongdoings. Some of the accusations described in the correspondence were eventually found to have no merit, while others quickly raise eyebrows.

A few examples:

• Findings that ADAPT, Inc., a Bogalusa-based nonprofit that receives state grant money, did not track employee hours spent working on grant-specific activities, did not produce certain annual reports for two years and made travel reimbursements without receipts.

• A review of DOTD's procurement, contracting and invoicing processes that revealed an accounting error where the department nearly paid off a $4.7 million contract with a $22.8 million check. The error was discovered "inadvertently."

• On one FEMA project worksheet, various divisions of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries duplicated certain charges, possibly used the wrong mileage reimbursement method and included charges for what appeared to be "normal maintenance and repair."

That style of "watch-dogging" isn't exactly drawing praise from good government advocates. Barry Erwin, CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, says the IGO is losing some of its effectiveness by not publishing more reports because agencies no longer have to fear public condemnation.

Moreover, the public has a right to know about governmental abuse without having to go search for it. Many good government advocates say that anything involving investigative work at the IGO should be posted online and distributed to interested parties.

"At the very least, we need to take a closer look at how we are issuing these reports," Erwin says. "We need to see if we can do more to provide greater public access. The public has a right to see these kinds of things without having to request them."

Another reason the office is issuing fewer reports is the sharp reduction in resources accorded the IGO in recent years. The office's current $1.2 million operating budget and 15-person staff pales in comparison to the 30 staffers it had in 1988 -- when state government was much smaller. The tiny band of number crunchers there today is charged with investigating huge agencies and departments, such as insurance and agriculture, which collectively employ more than 75,000 state workers.

Prior to Katrina and Rita, Robinson wanted the governor to add more database specialists to the staff to assist with financial investigations, but the hurricanes blew that proposal out of the water. An opportunity to expand the staff, however, has been available to Robinson most of the time she has had the job.

When she took the post in March 2005, Robinson had an unfilled auditor's position. The job was put on hold after Katrina, when the office took a $50,000 hit. The money was restored, but the post remains unfilled. Robinson says the position has not yet been advertised, but a request has been made with state civil service to fill it.

Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a public policy think-tank, says the IGO needs to be more aggressive.

"There has been a noticeable decline in activity and visibility in the Inspector General's Office," Brandt says. "They had a publicly accessible role, and now that has seemingly changed as a result of their current situation. There's even been a change in roles."

The big change came after Hurricane Katrina, when Robinson says the governor asked the IGO to start advising agencies on how to properly seek reimbursements for emergency expenses from the federal government. Since then, "50 percent" of the office's resources are dedicated solely to screening paperwork that will be sent to the feds.

A phone message seeking comment from Blanco on this decision was not returned by press time.

The future of the office remains unclear, but there has been a push to make it independent from the governor, who can still, by law, bury any IGO report -- including those dealing with the governor's office.

"I don't care one way or another," Robinson says of the independence issue. "I never had any interference from the governor."

In the meantime, Robinson says she will keep running her office as she sees fit, focusing on prevention rather than investigation. If her efforts to prevent corruption don't work, she'll have only herself to blame.

"You would be surprised how much fraud and stupidity can look a lot alike," she says.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

"Sometimes a watchdog can growl loud enough to keep - people away. They don't have to bite you."  Sharon - Robinson, Louisiana's Inspector General - JEREMY ALFORD
  • Jeremy Alford
  • "Sometimes a watchdog can growl loud enough to keep people away. They don't have to bite you." Sharon Robinson, Louisiana's Inspector General

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