Strengthen Inspector General’s Office, PAR Says
Redesigning the office of inspector general, the state’s executive branch waste and fraud watchdog, needs to be a front-burner priority for the governor. Nearly a year has passed since the death of Bill Lynch, the state’s first and only inspector general (IG). Yet, it is still unclear when and whether a replacement will be named, or how the office will be authorized. Rather than making a long-overdue appointment hurried by recent public pressure, a better approach would be to recreate the office with statutory protection, accountability to an independent board rather than the governor and expanded investigative authority and powers.
A now-expired executive order originally established the Office of the Inspector General and outlined its mission with limited authority and powers. Lacking the protection of either an executive order or specific statute and considering the state’s ongoing budget challenges, there is concern that the office might be eliminated. As the legislative session approaches, urgency should be placed on crafting legislation for the upcoming session that ensures the ongoing stability, integrity and independence of the IG. Simply re-authorizing it under executive order would leave it subject to the whims and wishes of any future governor.
Over the years, the office’s authority has been restricted, and its original 29-member staff has been reduced to 12. In the year since losing its director, the State Audit Director (second in command) retired, and only two reports – compared to 20 or more annually in previous years – were signed by the governor. However, the work output of the IG staff cannot be measured in issued reports alone, as the governor can choose not to sign and publish a report. Furthermore, not all investigations result in a report as the office also serves an internal audit function, which identifies opportunities for greater efficiency in government.
In spite of its current shortcomings, the value of the IG is well documented. Its work has prompted crucial changes, forced resignations of public officials, saved millions of taxpayer dollars and resulted in the overhaul of management practices in scrutinized agencies.
While there is some overlap of responsibility between the Legislative Auditor and the IG, the auditor’s responsibility is primarily to conduct regularly scheduled fiscal and performance audits. The Compliance Audit Division of the auditor does investigate allegations of fraud and abuse but primarily within the thousands of local government entities throughout the state. In contrast, the IG investigates state-level entities within the executive branch and is able to respond quickly to the allegations of whistleblowers.
Louisiana needs to restore this vital accountability mechanism as part of the state’s arsenal to reduce corruption and waste while improving its image. The governor should ensure that the office has the necessary tools to do its job. For example, sufficient funding should be provided to support a full staff and a public outreach function to enhance the office’s deterrent effect. This would encourage citizens and whistleblowers to report problems ranging from inefficiencies to criminal acts.
The office has at times been restricted by executive order from investigating the entire executive branch and statewide elected officials. The IG should be given broad statutory authority to investigate all departments of the executive branch. Moreover, the IG should be granted full access to records and officials through subpoena, oath-administration and testimony-taking authority. To protect whistleblowers, the law should give the IG specific authority to shield investigative documents from the public record until the investigation is complete. Clear lines of communication should be established among the Legislative Auditor, IG, Attorney General and state, local and federal law enforcement agencies.
According to nationally recognized standards of professionalism, the IG should be appointed by an oversight board comprised of elected officials and citizens, rather than by the governor. Appointments should be made for renewable five- to seven-year terms.
The governor can now quash or censor any IG report without explanation. The statute should ensure that there are no limits on what can be investigated. Legislation should include provisions that protect the IG from removal from office for purely political reasons.
Louisiana needs the permanent establishment of an Office of Inspector General. The governor should move quickly to make sure the office has the teeth, resources and independence necessary to wage battle against waste and inefficiency in state government.