Wednesday, February 07, 2007

GAO criticizes Homeland Security lawyers

Government lawyers have hampered investigations into waste and fraud at the Homeland Security Department, officials told Congress on Tuesday.

The head of the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of the Congress, and the department's own inspector general said Homeland Security officials, particularly lawyers in the general counsel's office, had delayed probes and demanded inappropriate access to interviews with employees. There was no suggestion of criminality.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke denied the allegations, terming them inaccurate and unfair. He said there are many times that investigators from both offices have interviewed employees without attorneys present and that the general counsel's office is involved only when sensitive information is discussed.

Both investigators told a House subcommittee that numerous inquiries into waste, abuse or management problems had been delayed.

"They're not very responsive. They don't give information quickly," said David Walker, head of the GAO.

"Every document we seek to review has to be reviewed (first) by the general counsel's office," Walker added. He said the department's general counsel wants to "sit in on every interview," which he deemed inappropriate.

Walker said when there are more lawyers than other staff involved, "you've got problems."

"I agree wholeheartedly," said Inspector General Richard Skinner. "It's not a denial of information, but it's very cumbersome to obtain information."

Skinner also said that having a supervisor or attorney present when his office interviews an employee "sets a chilling effect" and tells the employee he's presumed not to be a team player.

Until his resignation last month, the general counsel was Phil Perry, son-in-law of Vice President Dick Cheney.


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