Heeding the messenger

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AFTER LEAVING his job as inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, Clark Kent Ervin cited a slew of serious problems at the agency that he said outgoing Secretary Tom Ridge and other department officials would not admit to, much less fix.

He offered these suggestions for whomever replaced Mr. Ridge: Be willing to acknowledge department mistakes and shortcomings, welcome constructive criticism and independent scrutiny, realize that unrecognizable problems tend to go uncorrected and unaccountable institutions tend to be ineffective.

If Michael Chertoff, a former prosecutor and Justice Department official nominated by President Bush yesterday to replace Mr. Ridge, gets the job, he would be wise to take Mr. Ervin's advice. In particular, the agency needs to do a better job securing the nation's seaports, consolidating the terrorist watch lists of various government agencies and, among other things, devising a workable (and unintrusive) system for tracking foreigners leaving the country.

Mr. Ervin's reports were often very critical of a department that was already garnering its share of ridicule over Mr. Ridge's color-coded terror warning system and his suggestion that Americans use duct tape to protect themselves from chemical attacks at home.

The inspector general outlined wasteful spending, politically biased decision-making and other problems. Air marshals tested positive for drugs and alcohol and slept on the job, he reported. The Transportation Security Administration overpaid one contractor, Boeing, by almost $50 million, gave exorbitant bonuses to senior managers, and spent nearly half a million dollars "for a lavish awards ceremony" for employees. Other officials wasted taxpayer money attending nonessential conferences in Hawaii and elsewhere. Undercover investigators sneaked explosives and weapons past security screeners at 15 airports.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ervin reported, at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a bureau within the department, hiring freezes were instituted, cell phone use was restricted and travel was put on hold because of budget shortfalls. Criminal immigrants were released because of detention costs.

The reports did not make Mr. Ervin popular. Mr. Bush nominated him two years in a row, but the Senate never scheduled a confirmation vote. He got the inspector general job through a recess appointment. Secretary Ridge mostly snubbed him. This year, the administration allowed his term to expire Dec. 8 without renominating him.

A recent report of a House committee on government reform found that appointments of inspectors general have become "increasingly politicized" under this administration. Of 43 IGs appointed by Mr. Bush, who's known for being thin-skinned, more than half contributed to his campaign, more than a third had worked for a Republican president, including Mr. Bush's father, and 64 percent had held political positions in a Republican administration or with a Republican member of Congress, the report found. Fewer than 20 percent had prior audit experience.

The independence of inspectors general is crucial, especially at Homeland Security, given the agency's vast responsibilities for protecting the country. Whoever Mr. Bush nominates to replace Mr. Ervin for this important job should be free to be as vigilant a watchdog.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°