Skinner doesn't pull his punches

IG guides DHS through difficult days by offering tough advice

Richard Skinner, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, isn't afraid to tell the hard truth to powerful people, even when there's plenty of bad news to go around.

As the department's chief watchdog, Skinner's job is to keep an eye on DHS as it struggles to integrate 22 component agencies and strives to become efficient and effective. His office has written several hard-hitting reports, particularly about information technology security and systems integration, both of which are central to DHS' mission. Within his limited budget, he also helps the department secure the country's borders.

And that's before Hurricane Katrina threw the Gulf Coast into a blender. Now Skinner must guide DHS through its most acute challenge yet, helping the department handle an expanded mission focused on disaster response and recovery. He must see that DHS performs and spends wisely as it assists in rebuilding 90,000 square miles devastated by the hurricane.

"The most important thing is to coordinate all this and deliver it in an effective and efficient way and avoid abuse," Skinner said.

In September, he created the Office for Hurricane Katrina Oversight, which oversees all contracts, grants and government operations associated with the Katrina recovery. The office also coordinates the work of other federal IGs in departments that receive disaster-assistance money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The office's first report is due March 31, 2006.

In the aftermath of the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, Skinner said he has the ear of senior DHS officials, even when he criticizes them and the department. Congress did not renew the presidential recess appointment of his predecessor, Clark Kent Ervin, for what some experts say were political reasons. But Skinner said he has never worried about having to pull his punches.

"Absolutely not. Never," he said. "We even discussed that early on. They made it perfectly clear that they understood what our role was, the importance of our independence and objectivity."

Skinner's office has released several scathing reports. It published one in September that concluded that DHS had poorly integrated and inadequate IT systems, which hobbled its disaster management capabilities a full year before Katrina hit. Skinner said he has been asked to focus on procurement fraud and that his office has completed a 30-day study of DHS' procurement practices.

Despite the pressure, Skinner couldn't be happier in his current role. "There's no better, more important place to work in government" since the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said. "This is the apex of an IG's career."

Skinner said he is ready largely because he has been lucky to be in the right place at the right time. At least, that's how he sees his evolution from cub investigator at the Agriculture Department in 1968 to the job he has now.

Coming up through the ranks of federal auditors and IGs, Skinner said he has almost always arrived just as an agency job, and sometimes the agency itself, was created. Many of those agencies were only two months old and some, like DHS, were only two weeks old, he said.

He almost always had bosses who were mentors and trusted him with management responsibilities far beyond his experience, he said. Each job taught him what he needed to know for the next, including his present one.

Skinner said he feels confident in his oversight of Katrina operations because, from 1991 to 2003, he served as FEMA's assistant IG for audits, deputy IG and acting IG. He knows the agency well. He worked directly with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to enlarge FEMA from an agency with 26 people and a $2.6 million budget in 1991 to one with more than 200 people and a $35 million budget in 1995.

Earlier experiences were valuable, too. A stint in the 1970s running the Atlanta field office of the Justice Department's now-defunct Law Enforcement Assistance Administration showed him that most IG-type work is done in the field. The Office for Hurricane Katrina Oversight will rely on state and local auditors, prosecutors and district attorneys, he said.

His experience in Atlanta, he said, taught him that clear, two-way communications between field offices and Washington, D.C., is essential for effective oversight.

The Richard Skinner file

Current position: Appointed by President Bush, Skinner became the Homeland Security Department's inspector general in July.

Career highlights: Skinner became acting IG last December when the Senate failed to renew the appointment of his predecessor, Clark Kent Ervin. Skinner served as DHS' first deputy IG. Before joining DHS in March 2003, he served as acting IG and deputy IG at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Education: He has a bachelor's degree in business and accounting from Fairmont State University in West Virginia.

Hobbies: Golf, though he said his demanding work schedule is hurting his handicap.

Family: He has been married for 33 years and has two daughters.

Heroes: He cites his father and President Kennedy as his heroes. Skinner said Kennedy's quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," is one of his favorites.

Interesting fact: Nearly everyone in his family works in the Italian restaurant business. If he ever leaves government, he said, "I could always go work in a restaurant somewhere."

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