Congress

IG nominee faces 'warring camps' at DHS

John Roth

John Roth is President Barack Obama's pick to fill the vacant inspector general post at the Department of Homeland Security.

John Roth, President Barack Obama's pick to fill the vacant inspector general post at the Department of Homeland Security, is set to take the reins in a house divided, according to senators who quizzed him at a Jan. 8 confirmation hearing.

If confirmed, Roth, a longtime Justice Department attorney and current head of the Office of Criminal Investigations at the Food and Drug Administration, will move into an office that has not had a Senate-confirmed head since March 2011. The most recent acting IG, Charles Edwards, resigned in December, just days before he was scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about allegations of nepotism and abuse of agency resources. Edwards has denied the allegations.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has been active in pushing for answers to whistleblower complaints about Edwards since last June, told Roth that he would be moving into an office of "warring camps" -- those hired by and loyal to Edwards, and those who complained about him to oversight bodies in Congress. "Figuring out how to meld that together into a working unit and get past these serious morale problems that you have right now is going to be a challenge," McCaskill said.

Morale is indeed a problem, judging by the annual Best Places to Work rankings from the Partnership for Public Service, which shows leadership scores at the agency subcomponent plummeted from 2012 to 2013. Overall, the Office of the Inspector General at DHS ranked No. 207 out of 300 government workplaces surveyed.

Complicating matters is an ongoing OIG investigation into whether Alejandro Mayorkas, recently confirmed as deputy secretary of DHS, helped secure visas for a group of Chinese investors in an electric car company linked to Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, now governor of Virginia. Roth pledged to make resolving the Mayorkas investigation a top priority, and said he hopes to "have people set the reset button" in terms of office morale.

It's important to focus people on the mission, particularly in an agency like DHS where there is so much work to be done," Roth said.

A career government prosecutor who headed the busy narcotics office in Miami and a public corruption office in Washington, D.C., over the course of a 25-year career with the Justice Department, Roth said he was a "trial lawyer by heart." But his new job will force him to wear many hats. He was peppered with questions from senators about the role of OIG in program oversight, with many inquiries focusing on troubles in technology acquisitions and programs at DHS.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is looking for oversight from the OIG into plans to consolidate data centers. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is concerned about waste and overlapping spending on IT programs across the many subcomponents of DHS. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is concerned about expenditures on border protection technologies, such as the canceled $1 billion SBINet high-tech border fence. Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) is concerned that DHS is functioning as a kind of farm team for government cybersecurity experts, hiring and training recent college graduates who quickly move on to more sought-after assignments in the intelligence community.

Roth tried to assure senators he took their concerns about program management seriously. "It's absolutely important," Roth said, that an IG "not just be the watchdog and overseer with regard to operations, but be the advocate for good government."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is a staff writer covering Congress, the FCC and other key agencies. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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