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One Way to Avoid Scandal

A White House inspector general could close the 'gates'

By Kathleen Clark / September 3, 1998



Perhraps it is not surprising that many of the scandals that have plagued the Clinton administration have arisen in an institution that lacks an inspector general.

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The financial irregularities that ultimately resulted in "Travel-gate," the improper handling of FBI files that resulted in "File-gate," and perhaps even the incomplete response to congressional information requests that resulted in "Video-gate," might have been detected early and corrected by a White House inspector general.

The White House is one of the few significant executive branch institutions without an inspector general, and the Clinton White House has resisted efforts by Congress to impose an inspector general.

All Cabinet-level departments and dozens of other larger and small agencies, ranging in size from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Appalachian Regional Commission, have inspectors general.

Inspectors general investigate allegations of wrongdoing within their agencies. When wrongdoing rises to the level of criminal violation, they refer matters to the Justice Department and sometimes aid in the criminal prosecution. More often, their investigations are used in the disciplining of government contractors.

Inspectors general also provide regular audits of government programs, even in the absence of specific allegations of wrongdoing. They make recommendations to agency heads about how to restructure government programs for increased efficiency and accountability, and report twice a year to Congress.

In 1996 the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have created a White House inspector general. But the provision, part of the larger Presidential and Executive Office Accountability Act, was dropped from the bill in the Senate due to opposition from the White House and concern that a White House inspector general's activities might violate separation-of-powers principles.

It's understandable that the current occupants of the White House objected to the creation of an inspector general for that institution.

To the extent that inspectors general focus on rooting out wrongdoing, they provide ammunition to the political opposition.

But to the degree that inspectors general make recommendations for improved operation of a government institution, they can provide an invaluable aid to good government and prevent future scandals.

There are at least two good reasons to install an inspector general in the White House:

* An inspector general could reduce the need for independent counsel investigations by making nonpartisan recommendations for improving the administration of the White House, thus preventing future Travel-gate-like scandals.

* The growing unpopularity of the independent counsel mechanism calls into question whether the independent counsel statute will be reauthorized when the current statute expires in 1999.

If we are left without an independent counsel statute, there will be even greater need for increased accountability in the White House.

The inspector general mechanism helps promote an ethical environment because it institutionalizes organizational feedback.

It gives employees and others a safe place to voice their complaints and enables management to receive constructive criticism and recommendations from within the organization.

It is a management tool that enables government institutions to recognize and correct their own mistakes.

Our current obsession with investigating and prosecuting individual wrongdoing may actually prove counterproductive in our efforts to promote ethical government, promoting instead public cynicism about government.

To counteract this emphasis on individual wrongdoing, we need to pay more attention to ensuring that government institutions are designed to engender an ethical environment.

* Kathleen Clark is associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. She wrote 'Toward More Ethical Government: An Inspector General for the White House,' which appeared in the Mercer Law Review.