On a short leash


July 19, 2006 at 12:44 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

On a short leash
BATON ROUGE -- When Buddy Roemer was denied a second term in office following the 1991 gubernatorial election, he said he made one major plea to Edwin Edwards, who had just been re-elected for an unprecedented fourth time. It was likely a distasteful task, as Edwards had made Roemer his whipping boy during the legendary contest – the pummeling even continued after Roemer was edged out of the runoff by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

So what was it exactly that made Roemer swallow his pride and ask a favor of his political arch nemesis? It was the Inspector General’s Office, which Roemer created during his first year in office to ferret out fraud and corruption. An independent investigative branch 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.

Roemer had promised voters a “revolution” when he was elected – largely by slamming the early Edwards era – but the vow was splintered by an uncooperative Legislature. When the dust settled in 1991, among the tangible successes remaining was the IGO. But since it was created by executive order, it was up to Edwards to renew the enacting provision.

“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 out a federal prison sentence, eventually caved through a campaign promise and kept the IGO on the books – with some exceptions. In classic Edwards style, he prevented the inspector general from investigating him or his staff. Subsequent governors supported the office as well, doing so, however, in a more hands-off manner.  

While the office is still under the executive branch, it is now recognized by the courts and no longer needs to be recreated every four or eight years. Yet no one – neither Mike Foster, nor Kathleen Blanco – has been able to revive the office and return it to its heyday of yesteryear.

It was Foster, though, who started the disturbing trend of whittling down the office’s resources. In recent years, the number of investigations has dropped dramatically, the staff has been dwindled by half, the IGO’s core mission has been altered and agencies are now being admonished behind closed doors, rather than in public reports.

Under pressure in March of last year to bolster the office, Blanco appointed to its top post Sharon Buchanan Robinson, who had previously served as the state’s assistant legislative auditor. She now makes $120,000 in the job, which is $25,000 more than the governor takes home. But no matter how good the pay, Robinson found herself with big shoes to fill.

Bill Lynch was originally tapped by Roemer as inspector general and he held the job until his death in February 2004. Lynch was a modern-day Jeremiah and immediately made headlines with his “Gotcha!” good government style – he had also been an investigative reporter for 40 years with the Times-Picayune and other publications, which probably didn’t hurt.

Robinson, however, is the anti-thesis of all those things. She is cautious and has transitioned the office from “reactive auditing to proactive assistance.” In short, she would rather prevent state agencies from making mistakes than busting their chops on a regular basis.

“Sometimes a watchdog can growl loud enough to keep people away,” Robinson said. “They don’t have to bite you.”  But since she took over, Robinson has only overseen the publication of six investigative reports. Another two are pending approval in the Governor’s Office, one is being completed and four more are in progress. Those put out this year included investigations of the Orleans Levee District, dental services contracts and the Louisiana Manufactured Housing Commission.

Unless you turn back the clock, it’s hard to appreciate the decrease.

During the office’s first decade, from 1988 to 1998, there were 315 reports sent to the governor for review, an average of 31 each year. More recently, in 2000 and 2001, during the time frame that Foster was chipping away at the office, reports decreased to 10 and 15 respectively. 

One of the reasons reports are running short today is that Robinson has chosen to handle certain issues through personal correspondence, rather than traditional means, which would involve issuing a public, detailed investigative report to the media and others through the Governor’s Office.

When asked why investigations are handled this way, she said “many of them just don’t make for juicy reports, but we do keep people out of trouble. It’s just mundane stuff.”  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 exactly happened, Robinson said no. When asked if the problem involved any criminal intent or wrongdoing, she said it would be difficult to tell.

“We don’t know,” she said. “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 handle 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, revealed all sorts of alleged and actual wrong-doings that could have been made public. Some of the accusations described in the correspondence were eventually found to have no merit, while others don’t have to work very hard to raise eyebrows.

Some of the unpublished letters obtained for this story detailed:

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.”

This management style isn’t exactly drawing praise from good government’s usual suspects. Barry Erwin, CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, said the IGO is losing some of its effectiveness by not publishing these instances in official reports.

As a result, agencies no longer fear public ridicule, he said. Furthermore, the public has a basic right to know these things without having to go searching for it. Anything involving investigative work at the IGO should be posted online like everything else and distributed to interested parties, he said.

“At the very least, we need to take a closer look at how we are issuing these reports,” Erwin said. “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.”

Reporting has also decreased due to the limited resources of the $1.2 million operating budget and 15-person staff – the IGO had 30 staffers in 1988. The small band of number crunchers is charged with investing Goliath-like agencies, such as insurance and agriculture.

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 a vacancy for an auditor. It was temporarily put on hold by Katrina when the office took a $50,000 financial hit, which was equivalent to the position’s salary. The money was soon restored, but the IFO is still trying to fill the post.

Robinson said the position has not yet been advertised, but a request has been made with state civil service.
Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a policy think-tank, said 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 change came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the Robinson said 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 right now remains unclear, but there has been a push to make it independent from the governor, who can – by law -- approve or bury every IGO report, even those dealing with their own office.  “I don’t care one way or another,” Robinsons said of the issue. “I never had any interference from the governor.”

For now, Robinson said she will keep running her office like she wants, focusing on prevention rather than dog-watching. If her efforts to nip corruption and ignorance in the bud don’t seem to work, then only those falling under the microscope are to blame. 

“You would be surprised how much fraud and stupidity can look a lot alike,” she said.

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




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