An Untapped Source for Some Great Scoops
By Nancy Watzman
Nancy Watzman is a freelancer based in Washington, D.C.
They spend their days investigating waste, fraud and abuse in Washington. Journalists? Activists? No – IGs.
That's inspectors general, and a growing number of news outlets are discovering that the hundreds of reports produced annually by 10,500 IG staffers (plus 4,500 postal inspectors) aren't just so much bureaucratese. Reporters with the patience to sort through the tangled jargon are occasionally finding scoops.
Two years ago, Gannett News Service reporter Chris Collins approached her editors with an idea: Why not create an IG beat? In her 14 years at the news service, she'd concluded that many federal agencies weren't covered very well, and that the inspectors' offices in particular were neglected as sources.
Inspectors general are independent offices established by Congress to audit and investigate federal agencies and programs for waste and fraud. They report their findings to the agencies and Congress, which created the first IG during the Revolutionary War to keep an eye on Gen. George Washington (it thought he was careless with its funds). There wasn't much expansion of IG offices until the late 1950s, and again in 1976.
ýoday there are investigators at 12 major agencies and 34 smaller ones, ranging from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to the Smithsonian Institution. Congress is now apt to call for IGs at the slightest whiff of scandal: Prompted by the House Vost Office affair, lawmakers recently created an IG to keep tabs on Congress itself.
During the 1980s, many observers credited inspectors at the Department of Housing and Urban Development for their preliminary reports of problems at the agency. More recent IG investigations have included the Health and Human Services' report on generic drug scams, the State Department's investigation of the Bush-Clinton passport fiasco and the Pentagon's look at the Navy's Tailhook scandal.
Nevertheless, the media often seem to overlook such reports unless Congress holds hearings. One reason may be that the reports, while rich in content, can baffle even experienced journalists.
ýThey're damn hard to read," laments Paul Light, a former staffer with the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and author of a recent think tank book on inspectors general. "Many of them are laden with auditese and jargon and [are] difficult to penetrate."
Light argues, for instance, that HUD inspectors deserve only limited credit for exposing serious financial problems at the agency before Congress and the press began investigating. An IG report in 1985 detailing the irregularities was so densely written it didn't provide any real warning signs for reporters, he says. "Even when the report said bluntly that something was wrong, it almost always said HUD was working to fix it," he says. "Reporters were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. If they went after the underlying audit report, they'd get lost in it. If they just looked at the summary, they'd think nothing much was going on."
At Gannett, Collins and her editors hope that early warnings like that won't slip by again. Collins, who acts as a sort of one-person clearinghouse for IG reports, writes stories of national interest and turns over reports with local interest to colleagues covering Washington for specific Gannett papers. She also writes a weekly column using IG reports, "Your Taxes at Work," which is picked up by some 30 papers. "It's usually three or four eyeball rollers – outrageous uses of taxpayer money," she says.
In January 1993, U.S. News & World Report also launched an investigative beat that includes the inspectors general, assigning James Popkin to track the investigations and audits.
Like Collins, Popkin does a periodic column on government waste. But he believes the inspectors' offices are more valuable for the background they provide for larger investigative pieces. Popkin used Department of Interior reports, for example, to begin a story on the connection between the mob and Indian reservation casinos.
Harrison Rainie, who until recently oversaw the magazine's national coverage, says the IGs set a good example for Washington journalists. "A lot of [Washington reporting] is putting a warm body at the White House every day, with that person acting as a stenographer," he says, "as opposed to ferreting out what is right and wrong."
IG stories can also make good TV. A classic example is a 1991 four-part series by CNN reporter Mark Feldstein on the Agency for International Development. Based largely on IG reports, the series exposed mismanagement and fraud, including officials taking kickbacks and delivering animal feed instead of food to starving Sudanese.
The IGs, Feldstein says, are "some of the great unsung heroes of Washington."