John Roth, President Barack Obama’s pick to be the Homeland Security Department’s next inspector general, pledged to lawmakers he would work with DHS officials to implement hundreds of unheeded IG recommendations.
“I am under no illusions about the challenges the next inspector general will face,” Roth said in his testimony. “Ten years after its creation, DHS is still finding its way. I have reviewed the GAO reports, the DHS inspector general reports, and congressional hearings … that lay out the many issues that need to be addressed.”
In his nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday, Roth, currently the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, also said he aimed to turn around employee morale in the IG’s office, which has been rocked by allegations of misconduct by the former acting head of the office.
“Morale — historically high within the Office of Inspector General — is down and the risk of attrition is very high,” Roth said in his prepared opening statement. “I have absolutely no doubt that the office is filled with dedicated public servants who believe in the vital mission that the Office of Inspector General serves, and if I am confirmed I will pledge to ensure that the Office of Inspector General is viewed as the independent credible voice that it was designed to be.”
Obama nominated Roth to head the IG’s office in late November. The position has been vacant for nearly three years, and is just one of what was once a handful of high-level vacancies at the department. Before the Senate confirmed Jeh Johnson to serve as the next DHS Secretary and Alejandro Mayorkas to the No. 2 slot last month, nearly 40 percent of all political appointee positions at the department were vacant or filled by an acting official.
Roth’s nomination — in contrast to those of both Johnson and Mayorkas — garnered near-universal support from both Republican and Democratic members of the committee.
Lawmakers praised Roth’s extensive career, which includes 25 years at the Justice Department, where he last led the agency’s Financial Action Task Force responsible for combating money laundering. He also served as a U.S. Assistant Attorney in Washington, D.C., for fraud and public corruption and led the team on the 9/11 Commission that probed terrorist financing.
A committee vote on Roth’s nomination could come as early as next week, according to Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.).
Roth seeks ‘triage’ on unimplemented recommendations
Among his top priorities, Roth cited working to close the books on more than 1,200 open and unimplemented IG recommendations, some of them dating back more than 10 years.
“It makes no sense to expend the resources and time to write reports and make recommendations if they’re not going to be followed or not even agreed to,” Roth said. “If I’m confirmed, I think the first thing I’d need to take a look at in that long list is: Is this a capacity problem? Is this a political-will problem?”
Roth said he would meet with senior leadership about the open recommendations “to try to do some triage on those recommendations to understand what it is that needs to be done.”
The IG’s office also needs to pay more attention to follow-up, Roth said, including having a regular process for bringing to the attention of both department senior leadership and Congress those instances where recommendations are going unheeded.
More broadly, Roth said, if he’s confirmed, his first days at the agency would be spent getting the lay of the land.
“It’s been my experience that when you go into any job you need to do some diagnostics, you need to understand what the situation is before you can make any significant changes,” Roth said. “And I think a good leader needs to listen. He needs to listen to the people who work for him; he needs to listen to his management team; and he needs to listen to stakeholders both within DHS and outside DHS to understand exactly what the situation is.”
Roth said he’s been meeting with other agency IGs, such as Michael Horowitz at the Justice Department and former DHS IG Rick Skinner, who retired in 2011 and was the last permanent head of that office.
“There are number of people and a reservoir of expertise that I can draw on to move forward on this,” Roth told lawmakers.
Former acting IG accused of misconduct
The former head of the IG’s office has been under investigation by a Senate subcommittee led by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) since last summer.
McCaskill and Johnson are looking into claims of nepotism and misuse of agency resources brought by agency whistleblowers against former acting IG Charles Edwards.
Edwards, who strongly denied the allegations as “baseless,” left his IG post suddenly last month just days before he was to testify before the subcommittee. Edwards requested and was granted a transfer to the department’s Science and Technology office.
“You’ve got a real morale problem on your hands,” McCaskill said to Roth during his nomination hearing. “You’ve got a staff that is divided between those who were making the accusations against Mr. Edwards and those who were hired and remain loyal to Mr. Edwards. And that is a very difficult management challenge.”
Roth said he would seek to move past the recriminations and refocus employees on the mission of the office.
“My goal is to try to have people hit the reset button, and whatever happened in the past has happened in the past,” he said. “I wasn’t involved in that; I take no position on it. But what I do take a position on is, people are going to do their jobs, they’re going to focus on the mission and we’re going to get this thing done right.”
The subcommittee plans to release an report on the Edwards allegations soon, Johnson said during the hearing.
At the same time Edwards faced allegations of misconduct, his office was launching its own probe into complaints that Mayorkas, then the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, had improperly influenced decisions regarding foreign investor visas. Those allegations, which Mayorkas denied, held up his confirmation to serve as DHS deputy secretary. However, late last month, the Senate, voted to confirm Mayorkas’ nomination.