STIMULUS:

Interior IG brings detective's zeal to the money trail

A federal agency's inspector general can best be compared to a detective: The criminal commits the crime first, and investigators find out the details only after the damage is done.

But Earl Devaney hopes that will change with the methods he has helped develop as the stimulus's main watchdog. The Interior Department's inspector general has spent more than a year attempting to track the $787 billion that federal officials are quickly pumping into the economy through the Recovery Act.

"To equate this with a robbery on the street, by the time we got there the chalk had washed away where the body was. Never mind the body -- it's not there anymore," said Devaney, who has taken a leave-of-absence at Interior to become the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RAT Board). "Now we're able to try to intercept that fraud, interrupt that fraud while it's occurring, or prevent it from occurring in the first place."

Whether Devaney has been successful is hard to measure. He contends that there has been "a lot less fraud" than expected, but the RAT Board has not done an analysis of what has so far been fraudulently spent.

Board spokesman Edward Pound called such statistics a "moving target"; the board has opened 424 investigations since it was created about 18 months ago, and more than 350 are ongoing. With criminal investigations taking about two years to complete, there has not been a single major indictment yet.

But in a recent interview, Devaney evoked enthusiastic confidence as he discussed RAT's progress. From his modest Pennsylvania Avenue office -- just a couple of blocks from the White House -- Devaney oversees a staff of 50 to track billions of dollars as the government fans it across the country. He considers transparency as important as traditional investigations; the Recovery.gov website, he says, prevents an untold amount of fraud.

"If I was a crook," he said with a slight Bostonian lilt, "and I wanted to steal money, it wouldn't be this money. There's too many eyeballs on it."

An imposing figure, Devaney is known for his outspokenness; as Interior's IG, he once called Deputy Secretary Steven Griles a "train wreck waiting to happen" after discovering Griles' questionable relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. One infamous investigation unveiled a culture at the now-defunct Minerals Management Service, where employees accepted gifts from and had sex with people in the oil industry whom they were supposed to regulate.

Devaney's new role has yet to produce such colorful revelations, and he has kept a comparatively low profile despite overseeing a very public and controversial pot of money. Some observers have gotten impatient: At a committee hearing last month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was rankled by what he saw as the RAT Board's lack of convictions.

"This program has been going on for a year and a half, and all these are still ongoing? You haven't completed one?" McCain asked Devaney, who explained the two-year timeline for criminal investigations. "That doesn't inspire confidence in me."

Examples of prevented fraud are also vague: Devaney told McCain and other senators that several federal agencies withheld millions of dollars in contracts after the RAT Board discovered the recipients were ineligible. One company, he said, was set to receive $10 million before investigators "uncovered information showing the company was not eligible to receive contract awards."

Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, contends that Devaney protects people in power and instead "always goes for the lowest-hanging fruit." The group has at least three ongoing lawsuits charging that Interior failed to produce information for Freedom of Information Act requests on several of Devaney's investigations.

"He came out of Secret Service," Ruch, a longtime critic, said, referring to Devaney's time as a special agent in the Secret Service. "From that, he learned how to curry favor, and it's our impression that's what he's still doing."

But overall, Devaney enjoys broad support on both sides of the aisle for his efforts -- and his creative use of technology to curb fraud. RAT Board investigators use law enforcement tools to track funds, allowing them to search for patterns that might reveal illegal activities. Vice President Joe Biden recently announced that such methods would be applied to Medicare and Medicaid payments, and Devaney hopes that all new government spending will eventually be subject to such scrutiny.

"I think they ought to strip the name 'Recovery' off the front door and leave this place here and subject all new chunks of money to this kind of scrutiny," he said. "Because, you know, it's the first time I've seen that the IGs have a fighting chance to prevent fraud, as opposed to just someone stumbling across it and detecting it later."

The high risk of new ideas

Some of the riskiest funds Devaney tracks are those at the center of President Obama's rhetoric: new and renewable energy. Education, defense, transportation: They all have long-standing recipients who have been subjected to years of audits and investigations. But investing in new ideas means giving large chunks of cash to new and untested companies and organizations.

"Where you have large amounts of money being put into programs that have never existed before, have no infrastructure, have never been audited before, the agency people literally don't know the people they're giving the money to -- I mean, yeah, risky," Devaney said. "I don't think that is only EPA's problem, I think there are some other big problems -- broadband and other things -- that fall into that same category."

But while Devaney said that investigators focus their efforts on such risky investments, he also said they have not found more fraud there than in other areas. Most current investigations are "things that would come up under almost any other kind of spending," he said.

"It's falsification of grants. There's no real genius scheme we've uncovered yet," he said. "It's the same old crooks doing the same old things. A lot less, quite frankly, than I had imagined would be around."

But some observers question whether the money is being spent too quickly to accurately investigate and track.

Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, argued that Congress set up the RAT Board too late. By the time Devaney had launched the latest version of Recovery.gov and organized his team, she said, money was already flying out the door. Devaney, she said, "took a thankless, impossible job."

"It was a prescription for disaster from the get-go. I give the guy a lot of credit for taking the job," Paige said. But "when you shovel that kind of money out the door quickly, you are looking for trouble."

Devaney admits that the quick spending of funds has led to "sloppy oversight" in the past. The risk of fraud in new programs, such as weatherization, has thus made some agencies more cautious in giving out funds.

"My observation -- and it's probably supported by at least one audit I think that was done over at Energy -- is that they've been slow to get that money out because they've been exercising caution," he said. "Now, that's in contrast to the sometimes notion that you got to get this money out so that it can do something for the economy, and there's a lot of pressure to do that. So there's this angst going on there."

But, he countered, such caution does not mean there has been more fraud. The IG community has gotten on the front end of Recovery Act spending, monitoring the money from day one and allowing the public to access the same information, he said. IGs no longer have to "stumble upon fraud like we usually do." The result, he said has been far less fraud than expected.

"We don't know how much fraud we have prevented," Devaney said. "I do think history will show that there was a lot less fraud in this effort than had been anticipated or that normally would occur with such a large amount of money."

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